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Earth Will Lose Its Oxygen in a Billion Years, Killing Most Living Organisms

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Humans haven’t been great for the health of the planet, but even if we pollute ourselves into extinction, Earth will continue on. It’s survived enormous asteroid impacts and megavolcanoes, after all. A few primates aren’t going to do worse in the long-run. The ultimate fate of life on Earth lies a billion years in the future. A new study supported by NASA’s exoplanet habitability research lays out how the sun will eventually bake the planet, turning Earth from a lush, oxygen-rich world to a dried-up husk with no complex life. 

NASA is interested in the future of Earth because it’s the only habitable planet we can study up close. As such, scientists have attempted to extrapolate the properties of Earth-like planets we might be able to detect from great distances. Kazumi Ozaki at Toho University in Japan and Chris Reinhard at the Georgia Institute of Technology created a model of Earth’s climate, biology, and geology to see how it will change. 

According to Ozaki and Reinhard, Earth’s oxygenated atmosphere is not a permanent feature. There was very little of it in the atmosphere until 2.4 billion years ago when cyanobacteria evolved to absorb carbon dioxide and expel oxygen — this is known as the Great Oxidation Event. This gave rise to all the forms of multicellular life we see on Earth today. There’s just one problem: the Sun. As stars age, they get hotter, and the Sun is about a billion years from roasting Earth. 

The study predicts that in a billion years, the Sun will become so hot that it breaks down carbon dioxide. The levels of CO2 will become so low that photosynthesizing plants will be unable to survive, and that means no more oxygen for the rest of us. When that happens, the changes will be abrupt. Ozaki and Reinhard say in the study, published in Nature Geoscience, that it could take a little as 10,000 years for oxygen levels to drop to a millionth of what it is now. That’s a blink of the eye in geological terms. Methane levels will also begin to rise, reaching 10,000 times the level seen today. 

Cyanobacteria like these oxygenated the atmosphere, but the era of oxygen may be fleeting.

This harsh, choking atmosphere will be incompatible with any multicellular life as it exists today. The globe will be given over to bacteria and archaea, the heartiest of living organisms to see the planet through the rest of its existence until it’s swallowed by the Sun. Even if more complex life did survive, it would be irradiated by the increasingly luminous Sun. Without oxygen, the ozone layer will evaporate and expose the surface to more intense UV radiation. 

Ozaki and Reinhard conclude that oxygen is an important biomarker, but it may not be a permanent feature of planets with life. That could change how we categorize exoplanets going forward — even without oxygen, there could be plenty of single-celled life.

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WHO says most African countries to begin vaccination drives by end of March

Most African countries will kick-start their COVID-19 vaccination programs by the end of March as efforts to procure doses for the continent’s 1.3 billion people gather pace, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday.

The world’s poorest continent faces logistical and financial obstacles to securing all the vaccines it needs, but the WHO-led COVAX facility has begun to bear fruit.

“This week Africa has been at the forefront of COVAX facility deliveries, finally, with almost 10 million vaccine doses being delivered to 11 countries as of this morning,” WHO Africa’s Matshidiso Moeti told a virtual news conference.

“We expect that around half of African countries will receive COVAX deliveries in the coming week and that most countries will have vaccination programs underway by the end of March.”

COVAX, also led by the GAVI vaccines alliance and other partners, plans to send about 1.3 billion doses to 92 lower- and middle-income nations, covering up to 20 per cent of their populations.

As of Thursday, Africa had reported at least 3,955,000 infections and 104,000 deaths.

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Ontario reveals more details on COVID-19 vaccination plan, but most won’t get a reservation for months

An online portal for booking appointments for COVID-19 vaccines in Ontario is set to launch on March 15, the head of the province’s immunization task force said Wednesday, but it will likely be months longer before many people are able to get a reservation.

The announcement from retired general Rick Hillier comes as members of the general public in both Alberta and Quebec will be able to start booking appointments this week.

Hillier said the delay in launching Ontario’s version is because the focus until that point will be on populations that don’t require an appointment, such as patient-facing health-care workers and essential caregivers for long-term care residents.

“I would have liked to have it earlier, quite frankly,” Hillier told reporters, adding that health authorities are working “furiously” to test the system.

When the online portal, along with a telephone booking system, launch in March, Ontarians aged 80 and over will be the next priority. Hillier cautioned that anyone who is not in that age group, or who is not trying to make a reservation for a person in the 80-plus age group, will not be able to book an appointment in the weeks that follow.

Officials expect to begin vaccinating people 80 years and over by the third week of March. 

The proposed schedule in the following weeks, Hillier said, will look something like this as long as supplies of vaccine stay steady:

  • April 15: vaccinations begin for people 75 years old and over.
  • May 1: vaccinations begin for people 70 years old and over.
  • June 1: vaccinations begin for people 65 years and over.
  • July 1: vaccinations begin for people 60 years and over.

Essential workers, meanwhile, should begin getting their shots the first week in May, Hillier said, with the final decision about who qualifies in that category still to come from cabinet. The task force has already submitted its recommendations, he added.

Hillier wouldn’t say when those 60 years old and under who are not essential workers should expect to start getting shots. 

“A great question, we don’t need to answer it right now. Early summer is when we might be able to discuss that issue,” Hillier said.

WATCH | Retired general Rick Hillier on Ontario’s vaccine rollout timeline:

Ontarians aged 80 and over will be able to get their COVID-19 vaccinations in the third week of March, said retired general Rick Hillier, the head of Ontario’s vaccine task force as he outlined a series of dates for the vaccine rollout. 1:07

He also did not provide even a rough timeline for when people under 60 with underlying medical conditions or those living in higher-risk neighbourhoods might expect to be given a first dose of vaccine.

Hillier did say, however, that where Ontarians can expect to get a shot will be based on their postal code. They will be delivered through a combination of mass vaccination clinics, community centre programs pharmacies.

Asked why Ontario’s platform wasn’t launched sooner considering Alberta and Quebec residents will be booking vaccines imminently, Ford said at a news conference Wednesday that he respectfully disagrees the province is lagging behind.

Ford pointed to Alberta’s system crashing Wednesday on its first day of operations and said Quebec hasn’t administered a single second dose of the vaccine thus far.  

In a series of tweets, Dr. Isaach Bogoch, an infectious disease physician and member of the task force, said that primary care providers will help staff vaccination sites and will eventually be able to offer shots at their own clinics once additional vaccines are approved for use by Health Canada.

Several options on the horizon are more stable than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines currently available, Bogoch said. Approval of further vaccines could “significantly speed up” the rough timeline offered by Hillier.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford watches a health-care worker prepare a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Each public health unit will eventually be expected to give out up to 10,000 doses per day, though some larger health units should be doing considerably more, Bogoch said. For example, Toronto Public Health expects to have capacity for up to 400,000 shots per week, with most administered at nine mass vaccination sites, he added. 

As of Feb.14, all residents of long-term care and high-risk retirement homes — generally defined as those that provide memory care — who wanted a vaccine had been given their first shot.

So far the province has administered a total of 602,848 doses of COVID-19 vaccine, and 251,590 people have gotten both doses.

At a news conference Wednesday, Ford also announced Ontario will spend $ 115 million to provide tuition-free training to 6,000 prospective personal support workers. The programs, which are set to be up and running in April, will consist of paid placements with students completing in six months, rather than eight.

The government will also provide approximately $ 2,000 in financial assistance to some 2,200 students already completing studies in the PSW fields. 

Asked if the province will move to institute paid sick days for PSWs, Dr. Merrilee Fullerton, Ontario’s minister of long-term care, didn’t answer directly. 

1,054 new cases of COVID-19

The news comes as Ontario reported another 1,054 cases of COVID-19 and nine more deaths of people with the illness Wednesday morning. 

The additional cases include 363 in Toronto, 186 in Peel Region and 94 in York Region. 

Other public health units that saw double-digit increases were:

  • Simcoe Muskoka: 53
  • Windsor-Essex: 50
  • Thunder Bay: 45
  • Waterloo Region: 44
  • Ottawa: 40
  • Hamilton: 38
  • Durham Region: 35
  • Halton Region: 26
  • Niagara Region: 13
  • Middlesex-London: 10

(Note: All of the figures used in this story are found on the Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard or in its Daily Epidemiologic Summary. The number of cases for any region may differ from what is reported by the local public health unit, because local units report figures at different times.)

The Ministry of Education also reported 112 school-related cases: 89 students, 18 staff members and five people who were not identified. As of yesterday, 16 of Ontario’s 4,828 publicly-funded schools were closed due to COVID-19.

Ontario’s lab network completed 54,852 tests for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and logged a test positivity rate of 2.4 per cent. 

The seven-day average of new daily cases rose to 1,084. A steep drop in the seven-day average that began on Jan. 12 has levelled out.

According to the Ministry of Health, there were 675 people in Ontario hospitals with COVID-19 as of yesterday. Of those, 287 were being treated in intensive care and 182 needed a ventilator.

The nine deaths reported today bring Ontario’s official toll to 6,893. 

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Most at risk, first in line: Public health experts say racialized Canadians should be prioritized for vaccines

Two public health experts in Toronto say governments must prioritize vaccinating Black Canadians and other people of colour against COVID-19 because the data shows they are most at risk of contracting the virus.

Akwatu Khenti and Ananya Tina Banerjee told CBC Radio’s The House that failing to vaccinate those communities will not only put them at greater risk of getting COVID-19, but also increases the chance that the virus will spread more widely.

“The reason that Black people have a higher rate of positivity, or higher hospitalization rates, is actually because of social inequities, systemic racism and neighborhood vulnerabilities,” said Khenti, who teaches at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and chairs the city’s Black Scientists Task Force on Vaccine Equity.

“If we use some type of vulnerability index we would arrive at the same conclusion, the most vulnerable should be first in line. Right now, the most vulnerable are racialized health professionals, racialized communities.”

Banerjee founded the South Asian Health Research Hub, and like Khenti, is on the faculty at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. She said the data shows racialized communities are not only hardest hit by the virus, but many people in those communities work in manufacturing, distribution, the service industry and travel to their jobs using public transportation.

“And so given this information, it has to be prioritized that … the hardest hit neighbourhoods have to get vaccinated first or community transmission is just going to escalate,” she told The House.

CBC News: The House10:31Building an equitable vaccine rollout

Akwatu Khenti, chair of Toronto’s Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity, and Ananya Tina Banerjee, founder of the South Asian Health Research Hub, share what’s needed to create an inoculation campaign that provides equal access to shots. 10:31

Advisory committee looking at next priority groups

CBC News put those concerns to Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, on Friday.

Tam noted that the goal of prioritizing specific groups or locations, such as congregate settings, is to reduce serious illness. But, she added, different provinces would use their own evidence to inform their rollout plans.

She said the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) created last year is examining the next set of priority populations for vaccines as deliveries begin to ramp up in the weeks ahead.

“For example, if you are in Toronto or if you’re in Ontario, they’ve already got data in relationship to where those higher risk populations are and that they be considered as part of the rollout for the prioritization of vaccines.”

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said Friday that the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) is looking at who should be next in line for a vaccine. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Ontario’s Ministry of Health told CBC News that the province is already collecting some demographic information, including age and sex, from people receiving vaccinations on a voluntary basis; it is also exploring how additional data might be used “to support the efficient, equitable and effective vaccine rollout for communities that are at-risk and disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.”

The statement goes on to say that the ministry recognizes Black and racialized communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and is working with local health authorities to establish guidelines for delivering the shots.

“The ministry works with its health system partners to ensure the guidance and information provided is clearly understood by all partners regarding the prioritization of populations for COVID-19 vaccines.

Racialized populations at risk elsewhere

The federal government already identified the need to prioritize Indigenous communities for vaccination. But this country isn’t alone in grappling with how to protect the most vulnerable sectors of the population from COVID-19 amid shortages of vaccine doses.

In the United States, Black and Hispanic Americans are bearing the brunt of infections, hospitalizations and death linked to the coronavirus. Experts there, and in Canada, are warning that the lack of race-based data on vaccinations runs the risk of leaving those same communities behind.

Khenti said part of the effort needed now is to overcome the reluctance of some people in racialized communities to get the vaccine by working with community partners and other local agencies.

“You have to work through trusted partners because the issue isn’t just one of information, it’s one of trust. And to date, many institutions haven’t made the effort to earn that trust,” he said. “Systemic racism has been ignored. It hasn’t been given the priority that it deserves, especially with respect to anti-Black racism, which is the issue facing my task force.”

Community outreach critical

That kind of community outreach is being credited with reducing coronavirus infections in South Asian communities in BC’s lower mainland

The province, like most others, doesn’t systematically track race-based COVID-19 data. But Banerjee told The House it’s possible to replicate anywhere.

“I mean, think about it. We need to bring the vaccine to the people and meet them where they’re at right now … We need to be thinking about that. We can’t just rely on these large health care systems, malls and chain pharmacies to have these vaccination programs,” she said.

Ananya Tina Banerjee, a faculty member at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said vaccination programs must work at the community level and meet populations where they are. (Yanjun Li/CBC News)

” And so we need to be, I think, at these access points of trust, as we call it. Just this past weekend in the U.K., there were hundreds of people actually vaccinated at a pop up clinic set up by the East London mosque to encourage Muslims to be inoculated and given their widespread concerns about the vaccination. And I think that is an incredible model that is community driven, that can be rolled out to temples, churches, gurdwaras, mosques in Ontario, especially if you want to target those racialized communities.”

But both Khenti and Banerjee warned that time is short. New, more contagious variants of the virus are beginning to spread, increasing the need to act now to give priority to Black Canadians and others who are already at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

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Most U.S. Senate Republicans vote against holding 2nd impeachment trial against Donald Trump

All but five U.S. Senate Republicans voted in favour of an effort to dismiss Donald Trump’s historic second impeachment trial on Tuesday, making clear a conviction of the former president for “incitement of insurrection” after the deadly Capitol siege on Jan. 6 is unlikely.

The 55-45 procedural vote to set aside an objection from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul puts the Senate on record as declaring the proceedings constitutional and means the trial on Trump’s impeachment, the first of a former president, will begin as scheduled the week of Feb. 8. The House impeached him two weeks ago for inciting deadly riots in the Capitol on Jan. 6 when he told his supporters to “fight like hell” to overturn his election defeat.

But at the same time, the final tally shows it is unlikely there will be enough votes for conviction, which requires the support of all Democrats and 17 Republicans, or two-thirds of the Senate. While most Republicans criticized Trump shortly after the attack, many of them have since rushed to defend him, showing the former president’s enduring sway over the Republican Party.

“If more than 34 Republicans vote against the constitutionality of the proceeding, the whole thing’s dead on arrival,” Paul said shortly before the vote.” Paul said Democrats “probably should rest their case and present no case at all.”

“I think this was indicative of where a lot of people’s heads are,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, after the vote.

Sen. Rand Paul lost the procedural vote he prompted with an objection that would have declared the impeachment proceedings unconstitutional. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The five Republicans who voted with Democrats to allow the trial to proceed were Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania — all recent critics of the former president and his effort to overturn President Joe Biden’s win.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said Trump “provoked” the riots and indicated he is open to conviction, voted with Paul to move toward dismissing the trial.

Presiding Democrat taken to hospital

Late Tuesday, the presiding officer at the trial, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, was taken to the hospital for observation after not feeling well at his office, spokesman David Carle said in a statement. The 80-year-old senator was examined by the Capitol’s attending physician, who recommended he be taken to the hospital out of an abundance of caution, he said. Carle said Leahy was later sent home “after a thorough examination” and was looking forward to getting back to work.

Many Republican senators, including Paul, have challenged the legitimacy of the trial and questioned whether Trump’s repeated demands to overturn Joe Biden’s election really constitute “incitement of insurrection.”

So what seemed for some Democrats like an open-and-shut case that played out for the world on live television is running into a Republican Party that feels very different. Not only are there legal concerns, but senators are wary of crossing the former president and his legions of followers.  

As Republicans said the trial is not legitimate, Democrats rejected that argument, pointing to an 1876 impeachment of a secretary of war who had already resigned and to opinions by many legal scholars.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, seen here in January 2020, was taken to hospital late Tuesday after complaining of feeling unwell. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Democrats also say that a reckoning of the first invasion of the Capitol since the War of 1812, perpetrated by rioters egged on by a president as electoral college votes were being tallied, is necessary.

On Monday, the nine House Democrats prosecuting the case against Trump carried the sole impeachment charge of “incitement of insurrection” across the Capitol in a solemn and ceremonial march along the same halls the rioters ransacked three weeks ago.

The lead House prosecutor, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, stood before the Senate to describe the violent events of Jan. 6 — five people died — and read the House resolution charging “high crimes and misdemeanours.”

Republicans came to Trump’s legal defence.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas asked if Congress starts holding impeachment trials of former officials, what’s next: “Could we go back and try President Obama?”

Besides, he suggested, Trump has already been held to account. “One way in our system you get punished is losing an election.”

For Democrats the tone, tenor and length of the trial so early in Biden’s presidency poses its own challenge, forcing them to strike a balance between their vow to hold Trump accountable and their eagerness to deliver on the new administration’s priorities following their sweep of control of the House, Senate and White House.

Leaders in both parties agreed to a short delay in the proceedings, which serves their political and practical interests, even as National Guard troops remain at the Capitol because of security threats to lawmakers ahead of the trial.

The start date gives Trump’s new legal team time to prepare its case, while also providing more than a month’s distance from the passions of the bloody riot. For the Democratic-led Senate, the intervening weeks provide prime time to confirm some of Biden’s key Cabinet nominees.

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With help from sister, Kyle Alexander making most of time in Spain after 97 days in NBA bubble

Kyle Alexander spent 97 days in the NBA bubble — and didn’t see a single meaningful minute of game action.

A rookie on the Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat, Alexander arrived in Disney on July 7, three weeks before the regular season resumed. He left on Oct. 12, one day after the Los Angeles Lakers won the championship.

“It definitely had its moments, but it was awesome,” Alexander said, “to be in that kind of environment with one of the hardest working teams in the league with one of the best cultures, and then go to the Finals, get to experience what it takes to win at that level.”

The NBA’s March shutdown came at an unfortunate time for Alexander. The 24-year-old Canadian suffered a knee injury in January while playing for Miami’s G League team, but was verging on a return when Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus.

Alexander finally made his NBA debut in the bubble, playing garbage time in a pair of Heat blowout losses in August.

“I wasn’t in the best state to compete for [playing time]. That part sucked. But as far as jump starting back into my activities and getting healthy and shaking the rust off and getting my touch back on my jump shot, it was the best place to be,” the Milton, Ont., native said.

Kyle Alexander, centre, dives for a loose ball during a game against the Indiana Pacers in August. (Ashley Landis/Pool/Getty Images)

Now, Alexander starts for Fuenlabrada of Spain’s top league. After the NBA playoffs, he took a month off before moving to Phoenix to ramp up off-season training, under the assumption the NBA might not return until March.

The season began Dec. 22, news of which left Alexander scrambling. He went to a Toronto Raptors minicamp in Los Angeles, but could not secure a deal with his hometown team.

“To have that jersey on my chest and to be representing them, I went in there really motivated. And like I said, I was proud of how I did, but it just didn’t end up working out or making sense at the moment,” Alexander said.

(After waiving Alex Len last week, the Raptors have an open roster spot and a need for a big man. Adding Alexander, a defensively responsible centre with some outside touch, could make some sense.)

When Alexander left Raptors camp without a deal, his agent suggested he look to Europe for an opportunity to get immediate playing time and regain some rhythm. An injury on Fuenlabrada presented such a chance.

Through seven games with the team, he is averaging 7.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in just under 20 minutes per game.

Late start to basketball career

Overseas basketball is something in which Alexander’s sister Kayla has plenty of experience. The eight-year WNBA veteran has also played in Australia, France, Poland, Russia, Turkey and Belgium, where she’s currently stationed.

Kayla, 30, missed Kyle throughout their childhood as they passed through high school and college at different times. With both now in Europe, this is the closest their basketball careers have come to overlapping.

“I would hear about my pops telling me that he was playing now or seeing this [coach] and he’s getting better. He grew, but I wasn’t there to witness much of the growth, to be honest, which kind of sucks,” Kayla said.

Kyle didn’t begin playing basketball until 16, despite both parents and older sister spending lots of time with the game.

Before then, his father, Joseph, would drive him and Kayla to school early because Kayla needed to get shots up and there was no point in making two trips back and forth. Kyle would rebound for Kayla and a friend, with some occasional defence.

Kayla Alexander rises up for a shot during an August game in the WNBA bubble. (Mike Carlson/The Associated Press)

One time, Kayla, who had a penchant for flaring her elbows, sent Kyle to class with a bloody nose and lip. One-on-one between the siblings was never particularly close.

“She used to kill me. She really used to kill me. Like, it was bad,” Kyle recalled.

Video games were Kyle’s preference until his father finally brought him to a training camp.

“I went there first day smoking layups off the wrong foot against 12-year-old kids and they’re more skilled than me, it’s embarrassing,” Kyle said.

“So I went home that day, set my sister’s net up and just started going at it. And the next day I went in there, I was able to do different things. And that kind of just showed me that I had a work ethic and that I had a drive to want to get better.”

Now, Kayla says the tables have turned.

“Because back then, I was swatting his shots and now he’s swatting mine.”

‘Take care of yourself’

Kayla’s overseas experience has aided Kyle in his transition from the NBA to Europe. She says the advice she had for her brother wasn’t so different from what she tells her teammates on the Canadian national team.

“Have fun, it’s a privilege we get to play and get paid for it, that’s what we love to do. So that’s first and foremost, having fun with it. Advocate for yourself, speak up. If you don’t like something or if you notice anything, it’s good to be vocal. Take care of yourself. Take care of your body as well.”

A self-proclaimed “picky eater,” Kyle says he’s even started to cook — something which Kayla experienced firsthand.

“I didn’t know he was like ‘Chef Kyle.’ That’s amazing,” she said, before adding that he’d made one meal for her — jerk chicken over the summer — which was good, if too spicy.

Kyle’s first couple weeks in Spain even came with a reminder of home, when the country experienced its first snowfall in nearly 50 years.

Still, the goal remains to get back to the NBA. He was recently contacted by Canada Basketball, for whom he’d be able to contribute at the FIBA AmeriCup qualifier — which contains 2024 Olympic ramifications — in Puerto Rico at the end of February.

“It’s a good opportunity to come out here, find yourself play and make money playing the game you love. And then you keep working on it while you’re out here, kind of isolated from your friends and family, you use that as motivation to get better and try and fight your way back,” he said.

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Scientists Devise New Way to Treat World’s Most Potent Toxin

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The bacterium Clostridium botulinum produces the world’s most potent poison, which can cause paralysis, labored breathing, and death — it’s called botulism. The same toxin also smooths wrinkles in the skin at low concentrations because nature is weird like that. There’s an approved treatment for botulism, but it’s not perfect. Two different teams have devised a new way to treat botulism that could more effectively clear the dangerous toxin from cells and tissues, and it relies on a modified version of the toxin itself. It won’t do anything for your crow’s feet, though. 

The botulinum toxin is so deadly because it’s adept at slipping into nerve cells where it blocks the release of a vital neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. The most common way to contract botulism is by eating improperly stored food that has allowed the Clostridium bacteria to proliferate. While relatively few people get botulism in the US — there are about 200 cases each year — it’s more common in the developing world, and the early symptoms are often misdiagnosed. There’s also the potential that Clostridium botulinum could be used as a bioweapon.

Current treatments can clear botulism toxin from the bloodstream, but it can’t do anything about the toxins that have already infiltrated cells. That’s where the work from Boston Children’s Hospital and the Czech Republic’s National Institute of Mental Health could make a difference. Both studies adopted similar approaches of linking an antibody to modified botulinum molecules, essentially using botulinum as a transport mechanism for the antibodies. 

In the immune system, antibodies are produced to help the body tell the difference between “self” and “something else that ought not to be there.” If an antibody sticks to something foreign, it tags it for removal by the immune system. Some antibodies can also neutralize molecules and other proteins simply by sticking them to block their functions. The teams engineered antibodies that can neutralize botulinum and stuck them to modified versions of the toxin that don’t cause disease but can still enter cells. 

The teams tested their treatments in several animal models including mice and macaques. They report that animals receiving the treatment survived exposure to dangerous levels of botulinum toxin, and the controls did not. The antibody-linked botulinum didn’t contribute to any additional toxic effects, either. Although, at high concentrations, the neutered toxin can still cause paralysis. 

Because most cases of human botulism involve a reservoir of toxin in the gut (i.e. food poisoning), the standard treatment will probably still be necessary. However, the addition of botulism-linked antibodies could help pull critically ill patients back from the brink by neutralizing the toxins already in their cells. This work is still preliminary, though. It will take years of additional work before the FDA will allow these to be used in humans.

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Canadians in poor neighbourhoods had most COVID-related ER visits, data shows

New data further illustrates COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on the poor.

The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) says residents of Canada’s least affluent neighbourhoods had the greatest number and percentage of COVID-19 hospitalizations and emergency department visits as of Aug. 31.

Researchers looked at COVID-19 hospitalizations in Canada excluding Quebec between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 2020.

They found 29.2 per cent involved those living in the country’s least affluent neighbourhoods, while 12.9 per cent involved those living in the most affluent neighbourhoods.

The in-hospital death rate was 21 per cent for patients who lived in poorer areas, compared with 18 per cent for those in the most well-off areas.

Patients who died in hospital had a median age of 81.

CIHI says there were more than 8,100 hospital stays for patients diagnosed with COVID-19 from January to August 2020.

During the same period, there were more than 48,600 ER visits and 21 per cent of those patients were admitted to the hospital.

The in-hospital death rate was 19 per cent for females and 21 per cent for males.

Public health officials have said the novel coronavirus has hit lower-income groups and minorities harder than the rest of the population.

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Alberta tried to build ‘a wall of defence’ around its most vulnerable citizens. It has crumbled

The Alberta Legislature was suspended in the spring due to COVID-19 and, when it resumed in late May, Premier Jason Kenney spoke at length about the province’s strategy to “come out of this crisis stronger than ever.”

“Perhaps the most important strategy as we move forward is building a wall of defence around the most vulnerable — seniors in particular,” he said at the time.

That wall was hastily erected, as public health officials and operators of seniors’ living facilities scrambled to adapt to the confounding behaviour of the still-novel coronavirus. Some cracks developed through the spring and summer but the wall, more or less, held.

Then came the second wave, bigger and wider, dwarfing everything the province had seen before.

There have been record infection levels across all age groups recently, but people over 80 have been especially hard hit. Adjusted for population size, their current rate of infection is second only to young adults in their 20s and 30s.

Back in September, Alberta was recording fewer than a dozen new cases per week among people aged 80 and over. Last week, there were more than 400. More Albertans in this age range have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in November and December than during the entire rest of the pandemic

Deaths, too, have surged to unprecedented levels. November was, by far, the deadliest month on record, accounting for 241 of the 640 deaths on record.

December could be on track for even more. Health officials see the high infection rate among seniors as a harbinger of more deaths to come, even with the new and much stricter public health restrictions the government announced Tuesday.

The pattern of cases and deaths

Alberta successfully curbed a surge in cases among senior citizens in the spring, many of whom were infected in supportive-living or long-term care homes. Another surge in the summer was also beaten back.

But each incursion took its toll. Outbreaks among senior citizens were followed by a spike in deaths. Those over the age of 80 faced especially grim odds. For one in four, a COVID-19 infection ended up being fatal.

Then came a period of relative calm. Alberta went a full week in mid-September without recording a single COVID-19 death.

But the viral spread started ramping up again in October, gained momentum in November and came crashing into December, with new records being set almost daily for infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health, says the recent surge among seniors, in particular, is connected to the rising number of outbreaks at long-term care and supportive-living facilities.

As of Tuesday, 146 of these facilities had active outbreaks. This list has been continually growing, pushing the rate of new infections among Albertans aged 80-plus ever higher.

On average over the past week, there have been more than 46 new daily cases per 100,000 people in this age range. That’s more than five times the rate during the peak of the spring and summer surges.

“The number of cases in that older population is absolutely a concern,” Hinshaw said Monday.

“I would anticipate, of course, that with rising numbers in that very vulnerable population, it may well be an indication of an increase in the most tragic outcome — in terms of deaths.”

Until recently, daily death tolls in the double digits were a rarity in Alberta.

Now, they have become the norm.

The majority of these deaths have come among seniors who reside in long-term care facilities and supportive-living sites.

As of last week, Hinshaw said they accounted for 64 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in the province.

Calls for change

This problem may be especially acute in Alberta at the moment, but it hasn’t been unique to the province.

Revera, one of the country’s largest operators of seniors’ residences and long-term care homes, called this week for provincial governments across Canada to adopt widespread surveillance testing to help blunt the devastating impact of COVID-19 on older Canadians in group-living accommodations.

Extendicare, another major operator, made a similar plea last week in Alberta, specifically.

“We must act now. There is no time to waste,” the company’s chief medical officer, Matthew Morgan, told The Globe & Mail, calling for mandatory weekly testing of care-home staff.

The Alberta NDP took things a step further, calling on the province to start administering rapid COVID-19 tests twice a week to every resident and staff member in long-term care facilities.

“To be blunt, if we can test hockey players each and every day, if we put value on doing that, then surely we can do the same or better for residents who are living in fear in continuing care,” NDP Leader Rachel Notley said.

Hinshaw said Monday the province planned to launch some “point of care” rapid testing in other settings as a pilot project, and would look at expanding this kind of testing to long-term care facilities in the future.

But Hinshaw also said that truly protecting seniors will require reducing the spread of the virus across all age groups. 

“When we do have rising case numbers and rising transmission in the community, we see that increasing pressure on those long-term care and supportive-living facilities,” she said.

WATCH | Hinshaw on Alberta’s rising cases:

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health answers a question about the high rate of infection among people over the age of 80. 1:44

“And it’s very, very challenging to keep any introduction of virus out.”

To that end, Alberta just took its most extreme measures since the spring.

For the past month, physicians in the province have been calling for a “circuit-breaker” lockdown to curb the alarming increase in hospitalizations and deaths, but Kenney has resisted, saying such a move would damage the economy and impinge on personal freedoms.

On Tuesday, though, the premier relented and ordered the strictest measures the province has seen since the spring, including the closure of all casinos and gyms, an end to dine-in service at restaurants and bars, and the imposition of a provincewide mask mandate.

Kenney said his government was reluctant to take these measures but believes they are necessary, given “the hard, mathematical reality of the exponential spread of this virus.”

Failing to act, the premier said, “means more deaths, especially amongst our most elderly and vulnerable.”

Those measures don’t fully take effect until Sunday, however, and even once they do, it will take weeks for their effects to to be seen in terms of the hospitalization and deaths data.

Given the incubation period of the virus and the time it takes for people to get tested and have their results come in, the COVID-19 case data we’re seeing today reflects infections that happened a week or two ago.

On top of that, Hinshaw has said “hospitalizations typically lag behind the rise in cases by about a week to 10 days.” And deaths can lag behind even longer, due to additional delays in reporting.

Alberta’s wall of defence has crumbled. Repairs are about to get underway. But we won’t know until late December, or possibly early 2021, how effective the patch job is.

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Most Canadians could be vaccinated by end of 2021, says federal public health officer

Most Canadians could be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of next year, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer said today.

In recent days, pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna have announced successful trials of their coronavirus vaccines. Dr. Howard Njoo said he is optimistic they can be approved by Health Canada and rolled out soon.

“Hopefully these two vaccines get approved, because we still have to look at the clinical data, the clinical trials to make sure our regulatory colleagues are comfortable and approve them and the other vaccines,” Njoo told reporters in Ottawa today. 

“We’re looking at hopefully covering the vast majority of the Canadian population … by the end of next year. But like I say, this is something that is happening in real time and certainly there will be adjustments made as we move along.”

Canada has signed deals with several vaccine developers to reserve millions of doses under development to ensure Canadians have access to vaccines when they become available.

WATCH:  Dr. Njoo on vaccine rollout:

Canada’s deputy chief public health officer spoke with reporters during the bi-weekly pandemic briefing on Tuesday. 2:18

The federal government has agreements with Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech and Novavax and Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. It also has deals with Sanofi/GSK, AstraZeneca and Medicago.

Canada will receive 20 to 76 million doses of each vaccine should they make it through clinical trials and be approved by Health Canada.

Pfizer announced last week that its vaccine has proven to be 90 per cent effective at protecting people from COVID-19 in a study that contained almost 44,000 subjects. 

While those early results are promising, a key component of the vaccine has to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius — limiting delivery options once it has been approved by Health Canada.

Freezers being purchased

“Getting those vaccines from an airport tarmac or a port to Canadians right across the country is a significant logistical challenge, one which the government is focused on and working on ardently to be able to make sure that as vaccines arrive, they are getting out to the most vulnerable and the people who need it on a priority basis,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at his morning press conference today.

The prime minister said multiple government agencies and private contractors — and perhaps even the Canadian military — will be drafted to help with the delivery of the vaccine.

Watch: Dr. Peter Singer, Special Adviser to the Director General of the World Health Organization:

Dr. Peter Singer, Special Adviser to the Director General of the World Health Organization, on key questions that still need to be answered regarding the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine. 2:32

Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said the military may be involved in the vaccine rollout because of its logistical expertise, while the federal government will play a significant role in meeting the challenges of distributing a vaccine that has to be kept very cold.

“I do know that yes, absolutely, sufficient freezers are being purchased,” she said. “Some are already. We’ve mapped out the ones already in Canada and the additional ones that might be needed.”

According to Public Services and Procurement Canada, the federal government has purchased 26 freezers that can maintain temperatures of minus 80 degrees Celsius. It also has purchased 100 freezers that can maintain a temperature of minus 20 degrees Celsius.

The federal government has already pre-approved four companies to bid on government contracts to help with vaccine distribution: UPS Healthcare, Federal Express Canada Corp, Kuehn + Nagel Ltd. and McKesson Canada Corporation.

Tam said that once vaccines are approved that can be stored at higher temperatures, distribution will be simplified and the provinces probably won’t need as much federal help in getting them out to the public.

Trudeau added that until a vaccine arrives, Canadians will need to take the usual precautions to “get the second wave under control.”

“This is good news, but remember — a vaccine can only protect you once you’ve gotten the shot,” he said.

Rationing vaccines

Another factor for governments to consider is how to divide vaccine doses between provinces — an issue sources say was discussed during last week’s phone call between the prime minister and the premiers.

During that call, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs suggested governments ration the initial vaccine doses as they did with personal protective equipment in the early days of the pandemic. Higgs argued that provinces should only ask for the doses they need to protect their most vulnerable populations, allowing the rest to go to hot zones across the country. 

“We’ve worked together on this so far, so it wouldn’t be time to all split and run in our corners … when a vaccine actually arrives,” Higgs told CBC News.

WATCH | The logistics behind rolling out a vaccine in Canada:

The federal government is finalizing its plan to roll out COVID-19 vaccines once they are available in Canada. The plan needs to include how to transport, store and deliver millions of doses quickly and may involve military assistance. 1:54

New Brunswick, like the rest of the Atlantic region, has kept its COVID-19 caseloads under good control due to travel limits and quarantine rules. Higgs said the bulk of his province’s 32 cases are related to travel — people who work abroad getting infected and coming home. He said allowing the initial vaccination efforts to focus on hot spots will make New Brunswick safer.

“The fewer hot zones that there are in places where we’re travelling, the less exposure we have in our communities here in New Brunswick. So there’s a direct connection,” Higgs said. “Having those situations addressed, no matter where it is in Canada, will be helpful for us in the long haul too.”

Higgs said his idea was discussed only in passing during last week’s meeting. He said a broader discussion could take place at a formal First Ministers meeting set for early December if there’s greater clarity on the vaccine front at that time.

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