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Study suggests vaccines may improve symptoms for some COVID-19 long-haulers

Elaine McCartney typically keeps a list on hand of her 30 or so health issues following a bout of COVID-19 a year ago— in part because she just can’t keep track of them all.

There’s the severe fatigue and memory issues. Brain fog, much like after a concussion. Constant headaches, low appetite, round-the-clock dizziness. And on and on.

The 65-year-old from Guelph, Ont., has been experiencing those symptoms for close to a year, after developing what felt like a severe case of influenza in April 2020 and which a physician identified as a probable case of the COVID-19 illness. 

Then last month she got her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Her condition quickly seemed to improve.

“I was able to go to the store on my own, which I haven’t done for eight months,” McCartney said. “And my energy was up, and my pain was less. I had chronic debilitating pain in my shoulder, and it was gone.”

McCartney’s experience may offer a glimmer of hope for a growing number of people around the world living with prolonged health concerns after being infected with the virus causing the COVID-19 illness.

She’s not the only patient seeing unexpected improvements. Emerging research suggests vaccines may reduce symptoms for some of those suffering from what is now being called “long COVID”, where patients continue to suffer from a range of health concerns long after the infectious phase of the illness has passed. 

‘Reassuring’ findings from U.K. study

More than a year into the pandemic, it’s not clear how many people are experiencing long-term health issues after having COVID-19, but their numbers are growing.

Researchers think around 10 per cent of people who get sick with COVID-19 continue to live with lasting symptoms — some suggest the number could be as high as 30 per cent — which could mean millions worldwide are coping with some lingering issues from the disease.

A new preprint study out of the U.K., which is still awaiting the peer review process, looked at a small group of such “long COVID” patients. It found those who had received at least one dose of the vaccine had “a small overall improvement” in long COVID symptoms and a “decrease in worsening symptoms” when compared to the unvaccinated patients.

The researchers followed 66 hospitalized patients whose symptoms persisted — issues like fatigue, breathlessness, and insomnia — including 44 who got vaccinated and 22 who didn’t.

Emerging research suggests vaccines may reduce symptoms for some of those suffering from “long Covid”, or lingering symptoms after a bout of COVID-19. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

A little over 23 per cent of the vaccinated patients saw some resolution of their symptoms, the researchers noted, compared to around 15 per cent of those who weren’t vaccinated — with no difference in response identified between the Pfizer-BioNTech or Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines used among the participants.

The team also found another “reassuring result” — fewer vaccinated patients reported any worsening symptoms during the time period studied than the unvaccinated group, though they cautioned that there was a large potential for bias given patients self-reported their symptoms. 

Dr. Fergus Hamilton, an infectious diseases researcher at the University of Bristol Medical School and part of the team behind the new study, said the findings offer a “slight hint” that vaccines might improve lingering symptoms.

“Although we’re a bit suspicious about that given the small numbers,” he added.

Science behind vaccine impact not clear

The study is limited by its small sample size, but other medical experts are observing a similar trend.

In the U.S., where roughly a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated, physicians now have a large pool of patients to follow.

Dr. Daniel Griffin, an infectious diseases physician at Columbia University in New York, said around 40 per cent of the patients he is treating for lingering health issues from COVID-19 are reporting either complete, or significant, improvement in their symptoms after being fully vaccinated.

He said the numbers in the U.K. study were “pretty on-target” with what he initially observed in his own patients, but that the impact seemed to bump up a couple weeks after people got their second dose.

“That’s the first bit of good news in a really a long time,” Griffin said.

But he acknowledged the mechanics behind why vaccination might clear up lingering COVID-19 symptoms isn’t yet clear.

WATCH | Long-COVID sufferers struggle with limited care options:

Kim Clark and Sonja Mally have jumped from specialist to specialist for the past year as they’ve sought relief for a series of crippling symptoms associated with post-acute COVID-19 syndrome. Some health experts say more dedicated funding and resources for COVID long-haulers would help sufferers like them and shed light on a little-understood aspect of the pandemic. 2:27

“I think the most persuasive theory for me is that the virus was never completely cleared, or whatever remnants might still be … are now able to be cleared because of the robust response that’s triggered by the vaccines,” Griffin said.

McCartney said her own post-vaccination experience felt nothing short of a miracle — even if the science behind what’s happening in her body remains hazy and more research needed to evaluate how much vaccines could actually help COVID long-haulers going forward.

“I was feeling so miserable, for so long,” she said.

“I’ve logged more than a thousand steps in the past four days and I haven’t done that for months and months and months — so I’ve definitely seen improvement.”

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Pfizer study suggests COVID-19 vaccine is safe, protective in younger teens

Pfizer announced Wednesday that its COVID-19 vaccine is safe and strongly protective in kids as young as 12, a step toward possibly beginning shots in this age group before they head back to school in the fall.

Most COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out worldwide are for adults, who are at higher risk from the novel coronavirus. Pfizer’s vaccine is authorized for ages 16 and older. 

In a study of 2,260 U.S. volunteers ages 12 to 15, preliminary data showed there were no cases of COVID-19 among fully vaccinated adolescents compared to 18 among those given dummy shots, Pfizer reported in a press release on Wednesday.

It’s a small study, that hasn’t yet been published, so another important piece of evidence is how well the shots revved up the kids’ immune systems. Researchers reported “robust antibody responses,” the release said. 

Kids had side effects similar to young adults, the company said. The main side effects are pain, fever, chills and fatigue, particularly after the second dose. The study will continue to track participants for two years for more information about long-term protection and safety.

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Pediatric studies underway for other vaccines 

Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech in the coming weeks plan to ask the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and European regulators to allow emergency use of the shots starting at age 12.

“We share the urgency to expand the use of our vaccine,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement. He expressed “the hope of starting to vaccinate this age group before the start of the next school year” in the United States.

Pfizer isn’t the only company seeking to lower the age limit for its vaccine. Results also are expected soon from a U.S. study of Moderna’s vaccine in 12- to 17-year-olds.

But in a sign that the findings were promising, the FDA already allowed both companies to begin U.S. studies in children 11 and younger, working their way to as young as six months old.

AstraZeneca last month began a study of its vaccine among 6- to 17-year-olds in Britain. Johnson & Johnson is planning its own pediatric studies. And in China, Sinovac recently announced it has submitted preliminary data to Chinese regulators showing its vaccine is safe in children as young as three.

While most COVID-19 vaccines being used globally were first tested in tens of thousands of adults, pediatric studies won’t need to be nearly as large. Scientists have safety information from those studies and from subsequent vaccinations in millions more adults.

One key question is the dosage: Pfizer gave the 12-and-older participants the same dose adults receive, while testing different doses in younger children.

U.S. FDA timeline not clear

It’s not clear how quickly the FDA would act on Pfizer’s request to allow vaccination starting at age 12. Another question is when the country would have enough supply of shots — and people to get them into adolescents’ arms — to let kids start getting in line.

Supplies are set to steadily increase over the spring and summer, at the same time states are opening vaccinations to younger, healthier adults who until now haven’t had a turn.

Children represent about 13 per cent of COVID-19 cases documented in the U.S. And while children are far less likely than adults to get seriously ill, at least 268 have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. alone and more than 13,500 have been hospitalized, according to a tally by the American Academy of Pediatrics. That’s more than die from the flu in an average year. Additionally, a small number have developed a serious inflammatory condition linked to the coronavirus.

Caleb Chung, seen in this December 2020 photo as he gets his first dose of either the Pfizer vaccine or a placebo, says the study was, ‘was really somewhere that I could actually help out.’ (Richard Chung/The Associated Press)

Caleb Chung, who turns 13 later this week, agreed to volunteer after his father, a Duke University pediatrician, presented the option. He doesn’t know if he received the vaccine or a placebo.

“Usually I’m just at home doing online school and there’s not much I can really do to fight back against the virus,” Caleb said in a recent interview. The study “was really somewhere that I could actually help out.”

His father, Dr. Richard Chung, said he’s proud of his son and all the other children volunteering for the needle pricks, blood tests and other tasks a study entails.

“We need kids to do these trials so that kids can get protected. Adults can’t do that for them,” Chung said.

Have questions about this story? We’re answering as many as we can in the comments.

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Over half of Canadians say monarchy is obsolete after Harry and Meghan’s interview, poll suggests

A new poll suggests just over half of Canadians believe the British monarchy is a relic that Canada should abandon, following Prince Harry and Meghan’s explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Fifty-three per cent of respondents to an online survey by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies say the British monarchy no longer has its place in 21st-century Canada, while one-third say they would rather preserve this part of our heritage.

Leger executive vice-president Christian Bourque said the interview — and how Canadians are responding to its revelations — should be considered a blow for the monarchy and those who believe in the importance of the role it plays in Canada.

“I think this probably would not have been true a few weeks ago,” Bourque said.

The poll also found that 59 per cent of respondents sympathize more with Harry and Meghan, while 26 per cent say they held more sympathy for the Royal Family.

The online poll of 1,512 adult Canadians was carried out March 12 to 14. It cannot be assigned a margin of error because internet-based surveys are not considered random samples.

WATCH | Palace issues stark response to Meghan, Harry’s interview:

Buckingham Palace issued a stark response amid the chaos surrounding Prince Harry and Meghan’s bombshell interview, which included an outburst from well-known TV personality Piers Morgan. 2:03

Fifty-two per cent say the recent events involving the couple, which included the Duchess of Sussex divulging that she had been driven to thoughts of suicide and that a member of the Royal Family had asked how dark her son Archie’s skin might be, speak about a fundamental problem with the institution.

Negative view of monarchy higher in Quebec

Forty-three per cent of respondents say the recent events show the Royal Family holds racist views, which Bourque said is damaging to its reputation.

The negative view of the monarchy was higher in Quebec, where 71 per cent of respondents said it is out of date, which Bourque said is not surprising.

“Even if you exclude the Quebec numbers, you still get about half of Canadians who say basically do we really need the Royal Family in Canada,” he said.

WATCH | Trudeau says he won’t comment on ‘what’s going on over in the U.K.’:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he “won’t comment on what’s going on over in the U.K.” after being asked about allegations of racism made against the Royal Family in Oprah’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. 2:23

An earlier poll of 2,122 adult Canadians carried out from Feb. 5 to 7 had 46 per cent of respondents saying the monarchy is outdated and that Canada should get rid of it, so the numbers are slightly higher after the interview with Harry and Meghan.

In the more recent poll, Canadians appear divided on what could replace the monarchy.

Thirty-six per cent of respondents said they would prefer the prime minister be the head of state, with no other representative such as the governor general. Sixteen per cent said they would like Canada to be a republic with an elected president and 20 per cent said they would like to keep the existing arrangement.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook-Canadian Press News Fellowship, which is not involved in the editorial process.

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Moderna study suggests half doses offer strong immune response, but experts caution against changing approach

There’s now early evidence showing Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine may elicit a strong immune response even through half doses, prompting hope that further research could back up the results and eventually allow countries like Canada to stretch out vaccine supplies.

The company’s peer-reviewed findings, based on a Phase 2 trial, were published online by the journal Vaccine last week.

The study looked at the mRNA vaccine’s “immunogenicity” — its ability to provoke an immune response — through both anti-virus, spike-binding antibody levels and neutralizing antibodies, which help to block reinfection.

Researchers determined within a two-dose regimen that both the current amount of vaccine dose and half that amount being given each time were capable of “significant” immune responses.

Those findings are welcome news, though not yet worth changing dosing approaches, said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.

“But it does bring up the urgent need to do a Phase 3-type clinical trial of full dose versus half dose and see what happens,” he said. 

“The implications, obviously, are you all of a sudden double your vaccine supply overnight if this seems to work out.”

During a recent study, researchers determined that half the amount of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine dose was capable of triggering a ‘significant’ immune response. (Jean-Francois Badias/The Associated Press)

Immune response ‘increased substantially’

The Moderna vaccine is one of two options currently approved and being used in Canada to combat the spread of COVID-19, with more than 40 million doses ordered by the federal government.

Based on full clinical trial results, the current approach requires two doses of the vaccine, spaced 28 days apart.

The company’s recently released findings looked at both a full dose of 100 micrograms and a half dose of 50 micrograms, given as two doses in a randomized, observer-blind, placebo-controlled trial.

At eight different U.S. sites, a total of 600 participants were divided into age cohorts and randomly assigned at a 1:1:1 ratio to receive either the two full doses, two half doses, or two placebo doses.

By 28 days after the first shot, anti-virus spike-binding antibody levels and neutralizing antibodies were higher among people who’d been given the full dose compared to the half dose.

But that difference was “less apparent” after participants received both rounds, Moderna’s research team found.  

Both binding antibodies and neutralizing antibodies “increased substantially” by the two-week mark after participants were fully vaccinated and remained elevated through day 57, the researchers wrote.

Boxes containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are prepared to be shipped at a distribution centre in Olive Branch, Miss., in late December. (Paul Sancya/Reuters)

Questions over duration of protection, variants

Outside experts who spoke to CBC News all stressed the need for future research before changing Canada’s dosing approach, given the short two-month time period and small, homogeneous group studied by Moderna. 

Chagla also said there’s a clear need to understand longer-term immunity and how other elements of the immune system — such as T-cells, which target specific bodily invaders — might be affected as well.

“The point nobody can answer for you is how long you will have protection,” said Horacio Bach, an adjunct professor in the division of infectious diseases at the University of British Columbia’s faculty of medicine.

“Nobody knows. Nobody can tell you. There are no studies; that’s the reason it’s a global emergency.”

Dr. Noni MacDonald, a researcher focused on vaccine safety who is also a professor at Dalhousie University’s department of pediatrics in Halifax, stressed that while Moderna’s study did show similar immunogenicity with two different concentrations of the vaccine, it was also based on “old data.”

The research was conducted between late May and early July 2020 — long before the clear rise of multiple virus variants, which may be more transmissible or capable of evading the body’s immune response.

If the findings hold up against emerging variants, it could mean countries like Canada could one day “stretch what we have” when it comes to Moderna shipments, MacDonald said in an email exchange with CBC News.

But right now, that’s not yet a possibility. Already the company says its vaccine may be less effective against the B1351 variant, requiring it to develop an alternative version for booster shots.

Immunologist and microbiologist Nikhil Thomas says it’s important to ‘suppress the spread of these variants,’ as the coronavirus variant first identified in the U.K. is replicating faster and transmitting ‘at a higher frequency.’ 4:17

U.S. officials discussed half-dosing

Despite limited data on the benefits of using half-doses, particularly against emerging variants, there has been discussion south of the border over taking that approach, with the U.S. government also helping fund Moderna’s most recently-published research.

In January, Moncef Slaoui, then-chief adviser of the former U.S. president Donald Trump administration’s vaccine effort — one dubbed Operation Warp Speed — said officials were considering giving half-doses of the Moderna vaccine to American adults under the age of 55.

The same month, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration released a statement shooting that idea down, saying any changes to dosing or schedules of approved vaccines would be “premature and not rooted solidly in the available evidence.”

On this side of the border, Health Canada officials told CBC News the agency has not received an application from Moderna to amend its vaccine authorization, but would “thoroughly review” one if it was submitted.

Canada has other vaccines in line for approval — how they compare to the ones already being rolled out and how COVID-19 variants are a complicating factor. 2:03

Dosing strategies have long-term impact

While Bach suspects full clinical trials might yield a similar result to Moderna’s Phase 2 trial, he said it isn’t clear if the manufacturer would even allow countries to stretch their supplies.

He also agreed keeping the current guidelines in place is the ideal approach for the time being, rather than risking lives by adopting a dosing strategy that needs more evidence.

“We don’t know where we are going,” Bach said. “You can put people in danger.”

Still, there’s some potential in Moderna’s early results, according to Chagla. 

Knowing the adequate dosing strategy will matter down the line while developing those boosters for variants, he said. And the early evidence points to the potential for increasing vaccine supply to much of the developing world, where shots remain in short supply.

“The answer will have implicating effects for years, not just the vaccine roll-out over the next few months,” Chagla said.

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Roche arthritis drug cuts deaths in hospitalized COVID-19 patients, study suggests

Roche’s arthritis drug tocilizumab cuts the risk of death among patients hospitalized with severe COVID-19, also shortening the time to recovery and reducing the need for mechanical ventilation, results of a large trial showed on Thursday.

The findings — from the U.K.-based RECOVERY trial, which has been testing a range of potential treatments for COVID-19 since March 2020 — should help clear up confusion about whether tocilizumab has any benefit for COVID-19 patients after a slew of recent mixed trial results.

“We now know that the benefits of tocilizumab extend to all COVID patients with low oxygen levels and significant inflammation,” said Peter Horby, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at Oxford University and the joint lead investigator on the RECOVERY trial.

In June last year, the RECOVERY trial found that the cheap and widely available steroid dexamethasone reduced death rates by around a third among the most severely ill COVID-19 patients. That drug has since rapidly became part of standard-of-care recommended for severe patients.

Tocilizumab, sold under the brand name Actemra, is an intravenous anti-inflammatory monoclonal antibody drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. It was added to the trial in April 2020 for patients with COVID-19 who required oxygen and had evidence of inflammation.

The study included from 2,022 COVID-19 patients who were randomly allocated to receive tocilizumab by intravenous infusion, and who were compared with 2,094 patients randomly allocated to usual care alone. Researchers said 82 per cent of all patients were taking a systemic steroid such as dexamethasone.

Results showed that treatment with tocilizumab significantly reduced deaths — with 596 (29 per cent) of the patients in the tocilizumab group dying within 28 days, compared with 694 (33 per cent) patients in the usual care group.

This translates to an absolute difference of four per cent. It also means that for every 25 patients treated with tocilizumab, one additional life would be saved, Horby and his co-lead investigator Martin Landray said.

They added that benefits of tocilizumab were clearly seen to be in addition to those of steroids.

WATCH | Progress and setbacks in treating COVID-19:

While vaccines can prevent recipients from getting sick, finding and approving treatments for the virus has been difficult. 2:06

“Used in combination, the impact is substantial,” said Landray, who is also an Oxford professor of medicine and epidemiology.

Roche’s drug division chief Bill Anderson said last week that previous mixed results were likely due to differences in the type of patients studied, when they were treated, and the endpoint — the juncture at which success or failure is measured.

“We think we’re sort of zooming in on both the most relevant endpoints and relevant patient population,” Anderson said. “It seems like the ideal candidates are patients who are really in that acute phase of inflammatory attack.”

Drug used for some patients with COVID-19 in Canada

Actemra, along with Sanofi’s similar drug Kevzara, was authorized by Britain’s NHS in early January for COVID-19 patients in intensive care units after preliminary data from a smaller study called REMAP-CAP indicated it could reduce hospital stays by about 10 days.

The researchers said preliminary results will be made available on the medRxiv preprint server shortly and submitted to a peer-reviewed medical journal.

Dr. Niall Ferguson, head of critical care at Toronto’s University Health Network and Sinai Health System, sees potential in early data for tocilizumab, which is approved for use in Canada to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

Although evolving data has been mixed and is still emerging, Ferguson noted last week that the monoclonal antibody is already being used off-label for some severe patients in Toronto.

“It’s happening on a bit of an ad hoc basis when patients are caught at the right time and look like they may have a bit of
additional inflammation going on that could be set aside with this drug,” said Ferguson, who looks after the most severe COVID-19 cases at Toronto General Hospital.

Stephen Evans, a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine who was not directly involved in the U.K. trial, said its results were important.
“It is a large trial and the benefits were seen both on earlier discharge from hospital and mortality,” he said. “The 
magnitude of benefit is not startling but is clinically important, with a reduction in deaths from 33 per cent to 29 per cent.” 

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Secret recording suggests Iranian official concedes truth about downing of Flight PS752 may never be revealed

The Canadian government and security agencies are reviewing an audio recording in which a man — identified by sources as Iran’s foreign affairs minister — discusses the possibility that the destruction of Flight PS752 was an intentional act, CBC News has learned.

The individual, identified by sources as Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif, is heard saying on the recording that there are a “thousand possibilities” to explain the downing of the jet, including a deliberate attack involving two or three “infiltrators” — a scenario he said was “not at all unlikely.”

He is also heard saying the truth will never be revealed by the highest levels of Iran’s government and military.

“There are reasons that they will never be revealed,” he says in Farsi. “They won’t tell us, nor anyone else, because if they do it will open some doors into the defence systems of the country that will not be in the interest of the nation to publicly say.”

On Jan. 8, 2020, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in the skies over Tehran with two surface-to-air missiles, killing all 176 people aboard, including 138 people with ties to Canada.

CBC News has listened to the recording of the private conversation, which took place in the months immediately following the destruction of Flight PS752. CBC had three people translate the recording from Farsi to English to capture nuances in the language.

Security officials are studying the recording: Goodale

The details of the conversation, and the identities of the others involved, are not being released publicly due to concerns for individuals’ safety. CBC is not revealing the source of the recording in order to protect their identities.

Ralph Goodale, the prime minister’s special adviser on the Flight PS752 file, said the government is aware of the recording. Canada’s forensic examination and assessment team obtained a copy in November, he said.

Goodale said the audio file contains sensitive information and commenting publicly on its details could put lives at risk. 

He said the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Communications Security Establishment are evaluating the recording’s authenticity. A CSE spokesperson would not offer comment on the recording, saying the agency “does not comment on intelligence operations.”

“We’re treating all the evidence and all the potential evidence with the seriousness and the gravity that it deserves,” said Goodale.

“We understand in a very acute way the thirst among the families for the complete, plain, unvarnished truth and that’s what we will do our very best to get for them.”

On Jan.8, 2020 an Iranian surface-to-air missile shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 minutes after taking off in Tehran, Iran. Everyone onboard died. (Associated Press)

‘They could have been infiltrators’

Zarif is Iran’s primary negotiator with the countries that lost citizens on Flight PS752, and is the voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran on the global stage.

Over the past year, Zarif has maintained the government’s official claim that human error was to blame for the disaster. Shortly after the crash, Zarif said it was “brave” of the military to claim responsibility — but added military officials kept him and the president in the dark for days.

Iran originally denied any involvement in the aircraft’s destruction. Three days after the crash, and in the face of mounting satellite evidence, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani admitted its military “unintentionally” shot down the plane. He blamed human error, saying the military mistook the jetliner for a hostile target in the aftermath of an American drone strike that killed a high-ranking Iranian military general in Iraq.

Former foreign affairs minister Francois-Philippe Champagne has said he does not believe the destruction of the plane can be blamed on human error.

Minister of Foreign Affairs François-Philippe Champagne wouldn’t say whether he believes Flight PS752 was shot down deliberately. 2:00

On the Farsi-language recording reviewed by CBC News, the individual identified as Zarif is heard suggesting the downing was accidental — but later says it’s possible “infiltrators” intentionally shot down the plane.

“Even if you assume that it was an organized intentional act, they would never tell us or anyone else,” says the individual. “There would have been two three people who did this. And it’s not at all unlikely. They could have been infiltrators. There are a thousand possibilities. Maybe it was really because of the war and it was the radar.”

The individual goes on to say that “these things are not going to be revealed easily” by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or those higher up in the government.

The IRGC is an elite wing of the country’s military overseen by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader and commander-in-chief. The IRGC is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

In the recording, the man identified as Zarif points to Russia as an example of a country that was accused of involvement in shooting down a plane (Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014) but never admitted to it.

Push to compensate victims’ families

The individual also refers more than once during the recording to compensation as a means to close “the issue” and says Iran wants to compensate victims’ families to prevent other countries from turning the disaster into “an international crime.”

The individual says on the recording that while Iran would deliver the aircraft’s flight recorders to France for analysis, the data recovered wouldn’t show whether someone intentionally shot at the plane.

Despite international obligations stating the black boxes should be analyzed “without delay,” Iran didn’t move ahead with that process until six months after the crash. Goodale’s official report on Flight PS752, released in December, said Canada still hadn’t seen “full disclosure … on all relevant evidence.”

Iran proposed compensation of $ 150,000 for each of the victims’ families, but Canada rejected that offer. Goodale said Iran doesn’t have the right to offer compensation to victims’ families unilaterally.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was criticized for his demeanour in photos and videos released by Iran in Feb. 2020 following a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. (Reuters TV)

Recording is ‘significant’ evidence

Payam Akhavan, a former UN prosecutor and member of the permanent court of arbitration at The Hague, said the recording now in the hands of Canada’s intelligence agencies is a “highly significant” piece of new evidence.

He said Zarif is not involved directly in military or intelligence operations, so the recording is not a “smoking gun” offering conclusive proof that the aircraft’s destruction was intentional.

Zarif understands the inner workings of the IRGC and is a “highly influential and well-informed member of the highest level of the Iranian government,” Akhavan said, adding the recording suggests Iran did not conduct a proper investigation.

“The fact that he would say in a conversation that it is not at all unlikely that the destruction of 752 could have been organized and intentional is highly significant,” said Akhavan, who is also a senior fellow at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.

“The fact that he sees that as a real possibility, I think, should make us pause and really consider whether there’s not something far more diabolical at play.”

‘We do not want to see any scapegoats’

Ukraine’s Ambassador to Canada Andriy Shevchenko told CBC News that this is the first time Ukraine has heard about this recording, although the RCMP has been helping Ukraine with its own criminal investigation. He said he wants Ukraine to study this information carefully.

“I think it’s another reason for us not to accept anything smaller than the truth,” Shevchenko said. “We do not want to see any scapegoats instead of real wrongdoers. We do not want to see the truth being hidden behind state secrecy. We want to get to the bottom of this.”

When asked if he thinks the downing of the plane was intentional, Shevchenko wouldn’t rule it out.

“At this stage, we cannot exclude any possibilities,” he said. 

“I think we are still so far away from having a clear picture on what happened … We obviously lack trust in our conversation with Iran. I think we have a feeling that Iran shares as little information as possible.”

Special adviser to Canada’s response to Flight PS752 Ralph Goodale (left), Ukrainian Ambassador to Canada Andriy Shevchenko, then-transport minister Marc Garneau and then-foreign affairs minister François-Philippe Champagne attend a Flight PS752 demonstration on Parliament Hill on Oct. 5. (Ashley Burke, CBC News)

Final report won’t ‘tell us who pushed the button’

Shevchenko said Ukraine has proposed to Canada several ways the two countries could legally exchange information and evidence about Flight PS752, but they haven’t yet settled on a mechanism. He said this recording shows the two countries need to establish a “legally flawless channel” of communication.

“It’s going to be very difficult to go ahead with the criminal investigation,” he said. “So I think every piece of information like that is very important.”

Ukraine has received the final report from Iran on its aviation safety investigation and has until the end of the month to provide feedback. It’s still not clear when Iran will release the report publicly.

“I think we should all realize that this report can confirm that the plane was hit by a missile, but it’s not going to tell us who pushed the button,” Shevchenko said.

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New Study Suggests Dark Matter Doesn’t Exist

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Time and time again, the predictions made by scientific luminaries like Einstein and Newton have been confirmed through experimentation. One place where the greats seem to fall a bit short is gravity — what we see doesn’t quite match the models. Most scientists currently believe the iron grip of gravity is augmented by dark matter, an invisible material that makes up about 85 percent of the universe. A new study makes the case for an alternative model, one in which dark matter doesn’t exist, and gravity works a little differently than we thought. 

Interest in dark matter can be traced back to the 1930s when Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky was unable to explain the faster-than-expected rotation of galaxy clusters. Based on what we understand of the underpinnings of gravity, the force should be proportional to mass. Since dark matter only interacts with normal matter via gravity, it plugs the hole in the model quite ably. But what if there is no dark matter out there?

The leading alternative to dark matter is known as Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND), and it’s getting a boost from the new study. At its most basic level, MOND claims we are missing an important aspect of gravity. Instead of gravity depending only on the mass of an object, it might also depend on the gravitational pull of other massive objects in the universe. This interaction, known as the External Field Effect (EFE), means that gravity at low accelerations is stronger than Newton or Einstein predicted. 

NGC 2841

The study went looking for evidence for modified gravity in 153 galaxies by calculating the field effects under MOND. Some galaxies should have greater apparent gravity as a result of EFE based on the mass of other nearby objects. The team reports that the galaxies predicted to have strong external fields slowed more frequently than those with weaker external fields, which is what you’d expect if MOND is right. The researchers claim no other theory has anticipated this behavior. 

This result doesn’t spell the end for dark matter — most scientists are expressing understandable skepticism at the result. It will be tested in more detail by other scientists, and eventually, someone will figure it out; they’ll prove or disprove it. That’s how science works. In the meantime, those who believe dark matter is the best explanation for the observable universe will keep looking for the unseen mechanism.

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ExtremeTechExtreme – ExtremeTech

Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine appears effective against mutation in new coronavirus variants, study suggests

Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine appeared to work against a key mutation in the highly transmissible new variants of the coronavirus discovered in Britain and South Africa, according to a laboratory study conducted by the U.S. drugmaker.

The study by Pfizer and scientists from the University of Texas Medical Branch, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, indicated the vaccine was effective in neutralizing virus with the so-called N501Y mutation of the spike protein.

The mutation could be responsible for greater transmissibility and there had been concern it could also make the virus escape antibody neutralization elicited by the vaccine, said Phil Dormitzer, one of Pfizer’s top viral vaccine scientists.

The first results of tests on the variants offer a glimmer of hope while more studies are carried out as Britain and other countries try to tame the more infectious variants that authorities believe are driving a surge in infections that could overwhelm health-care systems.

The Pfizer-BioNTech study was conducted on blood taken from people who had been given the vaccine. Its findings are limited because it does not look at the full set of mutations found in either of the new variants of the rapidly spreading virus.

Dormitzer said it was encouraging that the vaccine appears effective against the mutation, as well as 15 other mutations the company has previously tested against.

“So we’ve now tested 16 different mutations, and none of them have really had any significant impact. That’s the good news,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that the 17th won’t.”

Dormitzer said another mutation found in the South African variant, called the E484K mutation, was also concerning.

The researchers plan to run similar tests to establish whether the vaccine is effective against other mutations found in the British and South African variants and hope to have more data within weeks.

The variants are said by scientists to be more transmissible than previously dominant ones, but they are not thought to cause more serious illness.

Scientists said the results of the study would help calm concerns that people will not be protected by vaccines being given to millions of people around the world in the fight against the pandemic, which has killed more than 1.8 million people and roiled economies.

But they cautioned that more clinical tests and data are still needed to come to a definitive conclusion.

“This is good news, mainly because it is not bad news,” said Stephen Evans, professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

“So, yes this is good news, but it does not yet give us total confidence that the Pfizer (or other) vaccines will definitely give protection.”

AstraZeneca, Moderna, CureVac testing against variants

AstraZeneca, Moderna and CureVac are also testing whether their shots work against the fast-spreading variants. They have said they expect them to be effective, but the timing of those studies is not known.

A senior British lawmaker expressed concerns in an interview on Friday that COVID-19 vaccines might not work properly against the South African variant. He was not responding to questions about Friday’s data.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the one from Moderna Inc., which use synthetic messenger RNA technology, can be quickly tweaked to address new mutations of a virus if necessary. Scientists have suggested the changes could be made in as little as six weeks.

The variant is not the first of the pandemic to emerge and Eleanor Riley, professor of immunology and infectious disease at the University of Edinburgh, said these types of studies will be needed as they appear.

“It may be necessary to tweak the vaccine over time,” she said.

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CBC | World News

Ontario could hit 6,500 new COVID-19 cases daily by mid-December without further action, modelling suggests

Ontario could see 6,500 daily new cases of COVID-19 by mid-December if no further action is taken to curb the fast-rising curve, new modelling shows. 

New projections by Ontario’s science advisory table show the pandemic is worsening across the province overall. Long-term care residents’ deaths are increasing each week and case numbers likely exceeding those of European cities currently in some form of lockdown, if case counts grow by five per cent.

But a five per cent growth rate is an “optimistic” scenario, according to Adalsteinn Brown, dean of the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and co-chair of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table.

The province’s seven-day growth average right now is already about four per cent, Brown said at a news conference Thursday. Over the last three days, the growth rate has been about six per cent.

Asked if further restrictions are needed to curb the rising curve, Brown offered this response without elaborating:

“If the goal is to reduce the number of cases and the goal is to reduce the impact to the health system, then yes,” he said just before the news conference ended. 

Without it, he said, “You’ll continue to see growth in cases, you’ll see more ICU cases, more deaths in long term care homes, even with new restrictions if they were implemented today, you’d still see growth in mortality as it takes some times to filter through the system.”

“I do not believe there’s a way that the cases will change without action.”

WATCH | Public health official on the need for tighter restrictions: 

“If the goal is to reduce the number of cases and the goal is to reduce the impact to the health system then yes,” Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table replied. 0:32

Meanwhile, Ontario’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams emphasized the importance of individual behaviour.

“If everybody did what they were supposed to do, we can bring these numbers down,” said Williams.

Asked whether he would consider further lockdowns, Williams said the province’s health table has yet to answer key questions about what such a scenario might look like, whether it would be provincewide, what the trigger might be and whether schools should also be closed.

No answers were provided to any of those questions, with Williams instead saying those questions need to be answered soon.

Over the past seven days alone, Ontario has seen 71 deaths in long-term care homes, a number health officials expect to quickly rise as case counts grow. 

The modelling also shows the number of people in intensive care will surpass the 150-bed mark within two weeks, a critical point when experts say the province will have to cancel many surgeries. Under the worst-case scenarios, ICU occupancy will exceed 400 beds within six weeks. 

“Access to non-COVID ICU gear will become rationed,” Dr. Michael Warner, medical director of the intensive care unit (ICU) at Michael Garron Hospital.

“It will force significant cancellations of surgeries, diagnostic tests, just about all non-COVID-related activity.”

As for the apparent disconnect between today’s modelling and the province’s response, Warner said:

“I’m really at a loss for words. I feel like Premier Ford and Dr. David Williams are on an island by themselves making decisions independently. Because the decisions they’re making make absolutely no sense.

“Unless something changes, our future is extremely grim,” he said. 

“We need new leadership and pandemic response immediately.”

The updated modelling comes as the province blew through its earlier projection of 1,200 new daily cases by mid-November, with 1,575 new cases of the virus announced Thursday — its third straight record-high day.

At a news conference earlier in the day, Premier Doug Ford defended the province’s plan, saying that while the numbers are “concerning” and “alarming,” widespread shutdowns are not the answer.

WATCH | Ford says province taking a ‘balanced approach’ to the COVID-19 pandemic:

Premier Doug Ford responds to a report by the Toronto Star that suggests Public Health Ontario recommended setting several key thresholds for the red “control” tier — the most stringent set of restrictions before a full lockdown — at levels four times lower than those the government ultimately chose.   1:35

“The easiest thing to do, folks, is to sit back and say let’s just shut down the whole province. How do you deal with the mental health of people? It’s easy for people to say just shut everything down.”

The first 22 minutes of that news conference were spent almost exclusively focusing on Ontario’s economic picture, with Ford announcing what he called a “historic” new partnership for a Hamilton shipbuilding company to build steel ship parts.

Asked Thursday evening if the premier would comment on the projections, Ford’s press secretary Ivana Yelich sent a copy of his comments from earlier in the day, adding that he has repeatedly said he won’t hesitate to take action when it is recommended by Dr. Williams. 

WATCH | Modelling shows pandemic worsening in Ontario:

Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said resident deaths in long-term care homes are increasing each week and case numbers across the province will likely exceed European cities currently in some form of lockdown if growth continues at five per cent. 2:01

Based on the growth rate of new cases in early November, Ontario is on track for 2,000 cases a day around Dec. 1, according to recent projections by the COVID-19 Modelling Collaborative. Work by this group — which includes scientists and physicians from the University of Toronto, University Health Network and Sunnybrook Hospital — has fed into the province’s own modelling forecasts. 

The last time Ontario released modelling, at the end of October, Premier Doug Ford hinted that it would show good news.

“We see the curve going down,” he said one day before the modelling was released publicly.

The modelling suggested the rate of increase in new COVID-19 cases was slower than it had been in previous weeks, but infections were still on the rise.

Read a copy of the government’s latest modelling report:

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CBC | Health News

Iran dumps Flight 752 investigator after he suggests Tehran kept airspace open to conceal ‘imminent’ attack

A newly released audio recording suggests Iran’s highest authorities allowed commercial airliners to fly in and out of Tehran during the period of intense military activity when Flight 752 was shot down — because closing the airspace would have given away the regime’s plan to strike U.S. military bases in Iraq.

CBC News obtained a recording of a 91-minute conversation that took place March 7 between a victim’s family member in Canada and Hassan Rezaeifar, who was appointed the head of Iran’s investigation into the downing of the Kyiv-bound Ukraine International Airlines aircraft. The crash of Flight 752 killed 176 people, including 57 Canadians.

The recording, which reveals a number of damning details about the downing of the plane and Iran’s response, is also in the custody of Canadian authorities.

Less than 24 hours after CBC News emailed Rezaeifar a copy of the recording and requested a response Thursday, news broke that he had been removed from his role overseeing Iran’s investigation into the downing of Flight 752. Families in the United Kingdom — which has an embassy in Iran — were notified this morning that a new investigator is now in charge.

Airspace kept open to avoid signalling attack: Rezaeifar

In the recording, Rezaeifar said closing the airspace over Tehran could have exposed Iran’s pending ballistic missile attack on U.S. air bases in Iraq in advance. That attack was retaliation for the United States’ killing of Iran’s top military leader, Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

“Some say we should have cleared the airspace,” Rezaeifar said in Farsi on the recording. “The National Security Council is in charge.

“But let’s say we had cleared the airspace. Wouldn’t [it] give away our imminent attack?”

Flight 752 was shot down just four hours after the strike on the U.S. base. Rezaeifar added that closing the airspace could have meant cancelling flights. Iran earns hundreds of thousands of dollars daily in fees for allowing flights in its airspace.

“Ok, let’s assume we had delayed the Ukrainian flight for ten hours. Wouldn’t it have cancelled all other flights after?” said Rezaeifar on the call.

Investigators pick up debris at the crash site of the Ukraine International Airlines plane shot down after takeoff from Iran’s Imam Khomeini Airport on Jan. 8, 2020. (Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA via Reuters)

Thomas Juneau, an associate professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa and former analyst of Middle East affairs, said Iran has been insisting the investigation will be independent — and the audio recording proves it’s not. 

“Having the lead investigator saying those things on that phone call really damages that fiction,” said Juneau. “By removing him, they’re trying to protect that facade.”

Passengers used as human shields, says expert

Payam Akhavan, a Canadian-Iranian international law professor at McGill University and former UN prosecutor at The Hague, also reviewed CBC’s copy of the recording. Akhavan argues the audio is a new piece of evidence showing the highest levels of Iran’s government chose to keep planes full of people in the sky on a day of intense military activity. 

“The senior leadership of the government willingly and knowingly disregarded these risks,” said Akhavan. “This is not just a question of human error or mistake. It’s a question of criminal recklessness.

“To knowingly put civilian aircraft in harm’s way, to use civilian airliners in effect as human shields, clearly implicates criminal responsibility.”

Dozens of Canadians, as well as students and academics studying in Canada, were killed in the downing of Flight 752. (CBC)

Crash investigator in immediate contact with military

Akhavan also said the audio implicates the investigation team in a cover-up.

In the recording, Rezaeifar — who was the head of the accident investigation board at the Iran Civil Aviation Organization at the time — says he picked up the phone five minutes after the plane crashed and was in immediate contact with Iran’s military.

Rezaeifar said Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Aerospace Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), admitted the military was ordered to shoot missiles due to national security concerns.

“I was informed at 6:30 a.m. and I called the IRGC at 6:35 a.m. and asked, ‘Did you have a missile attack?'” Rezaeifar says in the recording. “Mr. Hajizadeh explained and said yes, and we had orders. He said there are some national security considerations in the country.”

On January 11, Iran’s military admitted it unintentionally shot down the plane and blamed human error, saying the military mistook the jetliner for a hostile target. That acknowledgement came after three days of denial and after satellite evidence showed that missiles had hit the aircraft.

Rezaeifar did not respond to CBC’s request for a comment. His name is used throughout the audio recording and CBC News has copies of messages sent from his Instagram account setting up the phone call.

Victim’s family member ‘intimidated’

Javad Soleimani’s wife Elnaz Nabiy died in the destruction of Flight PS752. (Supplied)

Javad Soleimani (no relation to Gen. Qasem Soleimani) was the Edmonton PhD student on the other end of the call with Rezaeifar. He said Rezaeifar pressured him to remove an Instagram post critical of the Iranian regime. Soleimani has been an outspoken critic of Tehran since his wife Elnaz Nabiy died in the crash.

In that Instagram post, Soleimani wrote Iranians won’t forget about the crimes the regime has committed against its own people.

“Please delete it from your Instagram,” Rezaeifar tells Soleimani on the call. “Do you agree that out of 83 million people of Iran, only 10 or 12 people have hurt you? Why should those other 82 million people be insulted by this post?”

He then asks Soleimani if he thinks the Canadian government is more “benevolent” toward him. 

“Are you certain that the whole Canadian government is good and uncorrupt?” asked Rezaeifar.

Two days later, Soleimani said, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence contacted his family members in Iran to exert more pressure on them about his behaviour on social media. 

“It’s ridiculous,” Soleimani told CBC News. “They just wanted to somehow threaten me to stop criticizing the regime on social media because I had many followers on Instagram.

“They tried to force me to be silent … but honestly, I have nothing to lose. And I told him, I told him I have nothing to lose, so you cannot stop me by just threatening me by conversation over the phone.”

‘Inappropriate’ for investigator to pressure family member

Juneau said it’s “totally inappropriate” and “absurd” for the lead crash investigator to put pressure on a victim’s family member in Canada. He also said it’s not surprising.

“I did not expect the investigation to be independent and few serious analysts did,” Juneau said. “This basically confirms it.

“It’s not very smart. It’s just not a good move.”

He said the practice of the Islamic Republic is to exert psychological pressure, and often physical pressure, on anyone opposed to the regime, at home and abroad.

Juneau said he wants to know the extent of Rezaeifar’s relationship with the IRGC and Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence. He cautions the details of what Rezaeifar said on the recording might not be accurate, and might have been meant to exert pressure on Soleimani.

“Is it true?” said Juneau. “Is he boasting? Is he exaggerating some things to increase the level of intimidation towards family members? These are all questions that we don’t know the answer to.”

Syrine Khoury, press secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne, sent a written statement to CBC saying “interference with Canadian citizens is totally unacceptable, very troubling and won’t be tolerated.

“The government of Canada denounces any and all attempts to coerce or pressure Canadians, especially those suffering the loss of a loved one,” she added. “The government of Canada encourages anyone who feels threatened, unsafe or vulnerable to contact local law enforcement authorities.”

Ralph Goodale, Canada’s special adviser to the Trudeau government on the Flight 752 file, said the phone call “constitutes outrageous behaviour.”

“It’s wrong on every count of procedure, propriety, appropriateness. It’s simply completely wrong,” he said. 

He added the International Coordination and Response Group formed by Canada, Ukraine, Sweden, Afghanistan and the United Kingdom to support victims’ families will be investigating Rezaeifar’s “interesting and provocative” comments about keeping the airspace open to see if there’s truth to the remarks. 

Audio casts doubt on past reports

Hamed Esmaeilion, the interim spokesperson for the association representing the families of the Canadian victims, said the recording raises serious concerns about the two reports Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization has already published about Flight 752. Esmaeilion lost his wife, Parisa Eghbalian, and their nine-year-old daughter Reera in the destruction of Flight 752.

“I don’t see any different between Rezaeifar and the new investigator,” he said. “CAO is not independent. The whole organization is closely working with the IRGC.”

Iran is expected to publish another report on the crash before heading to France on July 20 to download and analyze the plane’s flight data recorders, according to a letter sent to victims’ families in the U.K. 

Hamed Esmaeilion lost his wife, Parisa Eghbalian, and their nine-year-old daughter Reera in the downing of Flight 752. (Supplied)

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CBC | World News