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North Korea says it won’t participate in Tokyo Olympics due to COVID-19 concerns

North Korea said it will not participate in the Tokyo Olympics because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A website run by the North’s sports ministry said the decision was made during a national Olympic Committee meeting on March 25 where members prioritized protecting athletes from the “world public health crisis caused by COVID-19.”

South Korea’s Unification Ministry on Tuesday expressed regret over the North’s decision, saying it had hoped that the Tokyo Olympics would provide an opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations, which have declined amid a stalemate in larger nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.

Japanese Olympic Minister Tamayo Marukawa told reporters she was still confirming details and couldn’t immediately comment on the matter.

North Korea sent 22 athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, along with government officials, performance artists, journalists and a 230-member all-female cheering group.

Politics and sports

At the Pyeongchang Games, the North and South Korean athletes jointly marched under a blue map symbolizing a unified Korean Peninsula, while the red-clad North Korean cheerleaders captivated global attention.

The Koreas also fielded their first combined Olympic team in women’s ice hockey, which drew passionate support from crowds despite losing all five of its games with a combined score of 28-2.

Those games were also much about politics. The North Korean contingent included the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who conveyed her brother’s desire for a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a move which helped it initiate diplomacy with South Korea and the United States.

That diplomacy has stalemated since, and North Korea’s decision to sit out the Tokyo Olympics is a setback for hopes to revive it.

WATCH | Olympic torch begins 121-day journey:

Japanese torchbearer Azusa Iwashimizu, a member of Japan’s women’s national football team, lit the Tokyo Olympic torch to begin the relay in Fukushima, Japan. 0:40

While North Korea has steadfastly claimed to be coronavirus-free, outsiders widely doubt whether the country has escaped the pandemic entirely, given its poor health infrastructure and a porous border it shares with China, its economic lifeline.

Describing its anti-virus efforts as a “matter of national existence,” North Korea has severely limited cross-border traffic, banned tourists, jetted out diplomats and mobilized health workers to quarantine tens of thousands of people who had shown symptoms.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga previously said he expected to invite U.S. President Joe Biden to the Olympics and was willing to meet with Kim Jong-un or his powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, if either attended the Games. Suga, however, did not say if he will invite either of them.

Kim Jong-un in recent political speeches has pledged to bolster his nuclear deterrent in the face of U.S.-led pressure, and his government has so far rejected the Biden administration’s overture for talks, demanding that Washington abandon its “hostile” policies first.

The North ended a yearlong pause in ballistic testing activity last month by firing two short-range missiles off its eastern coast, continuing a tradition of testing new U.S. administrations with weapons demonstrations aimed at measuring Washington’s response and wresting concessions.

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CBC | Sports News

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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CBC | Health News

Nvidia Says It Won’t Nerf Crypto Mining on Existing GPUs

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We’re living in a perfect storm for GPU price inflation —  cryptocurrency mining is on the rise, as is interest in gaming during the pandemic. There’s also a global semiconductor shortage at the moment. The result: even if you can find a high-end GPU, it’ll probably cost at least twice what it should. Nvidia hopes to combat this with the upcoming RTX 3060, which will have its crypto mining capabilities nerfed. The company has now clarified its plans, saying it won’t make crypto changes to any existing GPUs. 

Nvidia raised eyebrows when it announced the restrictions for its next RTX video card. Using driver-level limits, the RTX 3060 will be limited to 50 percent of the usual Etherium hash rate. So, why just Etherium? Nvidia says Etherium is the only popular cryptocurrency that benefits heavily from GPU-based mining. The hope is that by intentionally handicapping the cards for this one, very specific use case, that the supply for gamers will increase. 

In place of RTX cards, Nvidia wants miners to buy one of its upcoming CMP (Crypto-Mining Processor) cards. These parts don’t have video output capabilities, but most of the internal components should be identical to RTX video cards. Nvidia has said RTX supply won’t be impacted by CMP production because these chips “could not meet the specifications of GeForce.” That vague wording suggests Nvidia is binning chips, a common practice across the industry that involves selling chips with minor manufacturing errors as lower-tiered models. 

This GPU should only cost about $ 550.

Knowing that Nvidia could just slash the hash rate of GPUs at the driver level has naturally led some to wonder if changes are coming to other RTX cards. After all, if Nvidia wants miners to buy CMP cards, nerfing RTX cards would certainly drive adoption. However, Nvidia says that’s not going to happen — no existing GPUs will see forced hash rate changes. 

The fate of future GPU models will probably depend on how the CMP launch goes. The first mining-specific Nvidia cards will launch in the first quarter of the year, with more to follow later. Still, the RTX 3060 is a mid-range model. People buying the top-of-the-line hardware might balk at any mining limits. Still, it’s possible future high-end video cards will have limits on Etherium mining if CMP takes off. That might not be all bad if it means gamers can buy cards at (or at least within spitting distance of) MSRP.

Now read:

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ExtremeTechGaming – ExtremeTech

U.K. won’t take vaccines from COVAX program, says high commissioner

The United Kingdom won’t access its share of vaccine doses from the COVAX program, says British High Commissioner to Canada Susan le Jeune d’Allegeershecque.

In an interview with Power & Politics, d’Allegeershecque told host Vassy Kapelos that while the United Kingdom is one of the biggest contributors to COVAX, it still doesn’t see the need to access its share of the vaccine doses. 

“I don’t think there are any plans for us to access the doses, but we were in a slightly different position from Canada,” she said.

The federal government has faced criticism from charities and opposition parties over its decision to access Canada’s share of doses from COVAX — a global vaccine-sharing initiative jointly co-ordinated by the World Health Organization, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance.

In a media statement, Green Party leader Annamie Paul said she was “embarrassed” by Ottawa’s decision to access vaccines from a program primarily designed to help developing countries.

But the federal government defended its action, saying COVAX has always been part of the government’s efforts to procure vaccines.

“COVAX has two streams. It has the self-financing stream for countries like Canada to purchase vaccines through and then it has the advance market commitment for donations to be made for countries who can’t purchase them,” said International Development Minister Karina Gould in a Power & Politics interview. 

The high commissioner also noted that Britain’s vaccine rollout is more advanced that Canada’s program.

“We’ve already vaccinated 15 and a half million people, which is something like 23 per cent of the population,” said d’Allegeershecque. “So at the moment, we’re able to access the doses that we need without having to draw from the COVAX facility.” 

Britain also has the capacity to manufacture its own vaccines domestically.

As it stands, Canada could receive up to 1.1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through the COVAX program by the end of March.

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CBC | World News

Tokyo Olympics chief apologizes, but won’t resign over sexist comments

Tokyo Olympics chief Yoshiro Mori on Thursday apologized for making sexist remarks about women, saying he retracted the comments and would not resign, despite calls for him to step down on social media.

The hashtag “Mori, please resign” was trending on Twitter in Japan on Thursday morning and some users on the platform were calling on sponsors to pressure the Tokyo organizing committee into dropping Mori from the top post.

The 83-year-old Mori, a former Japanese prime minister and head of the Tokyo organizing committee, acknowledged that his comments that women board members talked too much were “inappropriate” and against the Olympic spirit.

Mori made the sexist comments at a Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) board of trustees meeting this week, according to a report in the Asahi newspaper.

“If we increase the number of female board members, we have to make sure their speaking time is restricted somewhat, they have difficulty finishing, which is annoying,” said Mori, according to the Asahi report.

WATCH | Understanding the Tokyo Olympics’ pandemic ‘playbook’:

With less than six months to go to the Tokyo Olympics, organizers have said the Games will go on no matter what. Now, they’ve released some preliminary guidelines explaining how that will happen. 1:37

“We have about seven women at the organizing committee but everyone understands their place.”

The JOC decided in 2019 to aim for more than 40 per cent female members on the board, but there are just five women among the board’s 24 members.

Japan persistently trails its peers on promoting gender equality, ranking 121 out of 153 nations surveyed in the 2020 global gender gap report of the World Economic Forum.

In a hastily called press briefing, Mori tried to explain himself, at first apologizing, then later saying that he did not necessarily think that fretting over the number of women in high-ranking positions was what was important.

“I don’t talk to women that much lately so I don’t know,” Mori said, when asked by a reporter whether he had any basis for saying that women board members talked too much during meetings.

Mori’s defiant response is unlikely to tamp down public criticism, and anger over his comments is likely to further alienate a Japanese public that has grown wary of Tokyo’s attempts to hold the Games during a pandemic.

Nearly 80 per cent of the Japanese public opposes holding the Games as scheduled in July, according to the most recent poll.

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CBC | World News

Garneau won’t rule out invoking Emergencies Act to limit pandemic travel

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau says the federal government won’t rule out invoking the federal Emergencies Act to limit travel as parts of the country continue to experience high infection rates of COVID-19.

“We are looking at all potential actions to make sure that we can achieve our aims. The Emergencies Act is something you don’t consider lightly,” Garneau said in a Sunday interview on Rosemary Barton Live. “But we are first and foremost concerned about the health and safety of Canadians. And if we can do that in a way that we have the regulatory power to do it, we will do it.”

The Emergencies Act would give cabinet the power to regulate or prohibit travel “to, from or within any specified area, where necessary for the protection of the health or safety of individuals.”

On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged Canadians to rethink all travel plans inside and outside Canada’s borders, particularly as March break approaches.

“People should not be planning non-essential travel or vacation travel outside of the country, particularly because, as I said a few days ago, we could be bringing in new measures that significantly impede your ability to return to Canada at any given moment without warning,” Trudeau cautioned. 

“Last night I had a long conversation with the premiers about a number of different options that we could possibly exercise to further limit travel and to keep Canadians safe, and we will have more to say on those in the coming days.”

When asked by CBC’s Chief Political Correspondent Rosemary Barton when such plans would be announced, Garneau said the measures are “in very active discussion.”

“I’m not going to predict when or what, but I can tell you that we are very seized with it in our government.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau says all options are on the table when it comes to implementing stronger measures to restrict travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

U.S. moves to strengthen land border measures

The minister also said Canada is looking at implementing COVID-19 testing along the Canada-U.S. land border as the United States moves to strengthen safety measures at land ports of entry.

“It would be easier to do … if we have quick tests that can be done because it’s a little bit more challenging to do testing at the border. But it’s something that we’re looking at very seriously,” Garneau said.

“As quick tests come along, that makes a big difference because there are challenges with respect to … certain land border points being very congested. And meanwhile, there’s a huge amount of traffic flow that has to keep going.”

U.S. President Joe Biden signs a series of orders in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., after his inauguration on Wednesday. One executive order in the country’s national pandemic response strategy includes potential COVID-19 safety measures imposed along the Canada-U.S. border. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

According to an executive order within the U.S. government’s national pandemic response strategy, top officials have been ordered to “commence diplomatic outreach to the governments of Canada and Mexico regarding public health protocols for land ports of entry.”

Within 14 days of the date of the order, officials must submit a plan to President Joe Biden to put appropriate public health measures in place.

“We will engage in a very serious way with the U.S. administration on how best to deal with land borders,” Garneau said.

The Canada-U.S. border remains closed to non-essential travel until Feb. 21.

Currently, travellers over the age of five returning to Canada by air must produce proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken no longer than 72 hours before boarding a flight.

Biden open to Canadian input on ‘Buy American’ concerns

Aside from implementing a new approach to tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, an executive order is expected Monday on Biden’s “Buy American” plans, fulfilling his campaign promise to purchase, produce and develop made-in-America goods.

“Obviously, if we see that there can be cases where there is damage done to our trade because of Buy America policy, we will speak up,” Garneau said. “President Biden has indicated that he is open to hearing from us whenever we feel concerned.”

Trudeau has already expressed his disappointment in Biden’s decision to revoke the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, with many now turning to Buy American provisions as another potential obstacle in the bilateral relationship between the two countries.

“Less than an hour after the end of the inauguration ceremony, we were in touch with top-level advisers in the White House and discussed many things,” Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., Kirsten Hillman, told CBC Radio’s The House this week. “Among them was Buy America.”

Garneau also said that he plans to speak with Antony Blinken — Biden’s nominee for secretary of state and Garneau’s U.S. counterpart — very soon.

“I’m really looking forward to talking to Secretary Blinken and carrying on the messages … between our prime minister and the president,” he said.

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CBC | Health News

Why the world won’t go back to ‘some sense of normal’ until all countries are vaccinated against COVID-19

As countries such as Canada and the United States continue vaccinating millions of citizens, global health experts warn the pandemic could keep raging if lower-income nations don’t get their share of much-needed doses.

It’s a concern that’s growing even as Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to newly inaugurated U.S. President Joe Biden, announced on Thursday the country will rejoin the World Health Organization (WHO) — and with it, the COVAX Facility, a global initiative to ensure COVID-19 vaccines reach those in greatest need.

It’s long overdue, some say. Others worry it’s just the latest example of lip service after what’s so far been a deeply inequitable vaccine roll-out around the world.

“I would characterize the approach to global vaccine distribution as a massive failure,” said Jenna Patterson, the South Africa-based director of health economics at the Health Finance Institute, a U.S. non-governmental organization.

‘No doses in the pipeline’ for some countries

While Canada is among the nations signed on with COVAX, it’s also one of the wealthy countries buying up massive shipments from a slate of vaccine producers — with millions of doses already administered between them.

Meanwhile, other countries have no doses in the pipeline, with some lower-income nations waiting for international aid that could take months.

That could amount to “catastrophic moral failure” on a global scale, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned on Monday. 

And from both an ethical and economic standpoint, the disparities could prove a lose-lose.

“Everyone wants to go back to some sense of normal,” said Dr. Ranu Dhillon, a global health physician who teaches at Harvard Medical School. 

“But that won’t be possible unless we solve this globally.” 

WATCH | WHO chief describes vaccine inequity between countries:

The wealthier countries of the world are buying up too much of the COVID-19 vaccine supply and leaving too little for poorer countries, says WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. 0:57

Ignoring vaccine equity could ‘prolong’ pandemic

On one hand, countries without COVID-19 vaccination programs could experience more infections and deaths for far longer; on the other, the possibility of vaccine-resistant variants emerging from ongoing hot zones could backfire on already-vaccinated countries as well. 

“Not only does this me-first approach leave the world’s poorest and most vulnerable at risk; it is also self-defeating,” Tedros said at the opening of the annual meeting of the WHO’s executive board.

“Ultimately, these actions will only prolong the pandemic.”

Allowing the virus to continue its spread in certain regions could impact travel and tourism, supply chains and the world economy, warned several experts who spoke to CBC News.

The coronavirus doesn’t respect international borders, said Dhillon, evidenced by the ongoing global spread of variants first found in countries such as Brazil and the U.K., meaning there’s no way to end the pandemic by focusing solely on national response.

If transmission continues largely unchecked in lower-income countries, there’s a possibility that variants emerge that don’t respond to current vaccines being rolled out in wealthy nations, he said.

A situation like that could derail widespread vaccination efforts, travel routes and economic recoveries.

“We can’t control COVID unless we control it in the rest of the world,” echoed Dr. Anna Banerji, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“And so that’s an additional incentive to get the whole world working together to try to get all places, rich and poor, vaccinated as soon as possible.”

WATCH | U.S. health economics expert: one nation’s health affects another 

Jenna Patterson, the South Africa-based director of health economics at U.S. non-governmental organization the Health Finance Institute, says an equitable global vaccination effort is crucial to fighting COVID-19 for both public health and economic reasons. 0:44

Canada has administered 700,000 shots

While Canada’s vaccination program got off to a slow start, including an imminent pause on shipments from Pfizer-BioNTech, it remains among the countries poised to vaccinate tens of millions in the months ahead.

Canada has administered close to 700,000 shots so far, providing at least one dose to roughly 1.7 per cent of the population.

Israel, the world leader in doses per capita, has vaccinated more than three million people; the United Kingdom more than five million; and the U.S. and China have both inoculated more than 15 million and counting. 

That’s a stark contrast to some of the world’s poorest nations.

Many African countries, in particular, are in danger of being left behind as countries in other regions strike bilateral deals, driving up prices, according to the WHO.

The delay is, in part, because of the stringent cold-storage requirements for certain vaccines, which can be challenging to accommodate in remote areas. But WHO officials said they’re working to ensure countries’ readiness to receive shipments, and suggested clear inequities are also at play.

“It is deeply unjust that the most vulnerable Africans are forced to wait for vaccines while lower-risk groups in rich countries are made safe,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa, in a statement the organization released on Thursday.

Guinea is currently the only low-income country in Africa to provide its residents with COVID-19 vaccines, and to date, according to the WHO, those have only been administered to 25 people.

Casket and coffin manufacturers in South Africa are currently experiencing an increase in demand because of the high number of registered deaths caused by COVID-19. While wealthy nations buy up vaccines from multiple producers, poorer countries have no doses in the pipeline. (Guillem Sartorio/AFP/Getty Images)

No doses yet in many countries

Patterson, who’s based in South Africa and was speaking for the Health Finance Institute, said it’s in the world’s best interest to ensure all countries are vaccinated against this virus, on both economic and moral fronts — since the death toll in unvaccinated regions could continue skyrocketing while infection rates drop elsewhere. 

“And COVID has displayed this better than any other disease, how the health of one nation affects another,” she said.

South Africa is the hardest-hit country in Africa with more than 1.3 million cases to date. It’s also now known for first discovering one of several concerning new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus — one which appears to be more transmissible, and potentially capable of evading some level of immune response.

Yet the country hasn’t vaccinated any of its residents and is set to pay more than twice as much per dose for its batch of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine from the Serum Institute of India compared to purchases made by countries in the European Union, according to a Reuters report.

Malawi, a low-income country in southeastern Africa, also has no vaccination campaign underway, even though the situation on the ground is a “disaster” according to Dr. Titus Divala, a physician and lecturer with the University of Malawi College of Medicine.

The country is currently grappling with a surge of COVID-19 cases, far higher than its first wave, which recently claimed the lives of two cabinet ministers and prompted a national lockdown. It has more than 16,000 cases of COVID-19 and 396 deaths to date.

“I think we’re going to be in a situation where we do need the vaccine, but we don’t have access to it for some time,” Divala said.

COVAX aims to bring 600 million doses to Africa

Through the COVAX initiative — organized by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance — international aid is meant to arrive,  albeit slowly, in the shadow of vaccination programs elsewhere that are months ahead.

The coalition has secured at least two billion doses of vaccines from multiple companies, with sources telling Reuters on Thursday that Pfizer-BioNTech, one of two companies with vaccines currently approved for use in Canada, will be signing on as well. 

COVAX has committed to vaccinating at least 20 per cent of the population in Africa by the end of 2021 by providing a maximum of 600 million doses, with a first round of 30 million doses expected to start arriving in countries by March.

The WHO, however, warned shipments and timelines could change if vaccine candidates fail to meet regulatory approval — or if production or funding challenges arise. 

Alison Thompson, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and researcher on ethics and public health, said countries like Canada and the U.S. who participate in COVAX need to either support other countries’ vaccination efforts financially or, at some point, take a backseat so other nations can enter the crowded queue. 

“That’s a hard sell politically,” she added, “but it really does raise the question about, what are Canada’s global obligations to public health?”

A technician prepares COVID-19 vaccines in Toronto. COVAX, a global initiative to ensure COVID-19 vaccines reach those in greatest need, has committed to vaccinating at least 20 per cent of the population in Africa by the end of 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Need to ‘mass-manufacture’ globally

Dhillon, the physician from Havard, said this pandemic has shown the level of innovation and technology available, and now it’s just a matter of scaling up to meet international need. 

“How do we mass-manufacture these vaccines in the quantities needed globally?” he questioned. “There is manufacturing capacity in other areas of the world. We need to remove issues with patents, we need to remove issues with intellectual property.”

It’s all easier said than done in a charged climate where citizens are clamouring to access shots in short supply within their own borders, and Canada is no exception.

But Dhillon compared the current vaccine landscape to the therapies that emerged to prevent AIDS, the often-devastating illness caused by HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus. 

Wealthier nations accessed those first, he explained, while poorer countries were left waiting, with many of those infected in the developing world still starting therapy late.

“Instead of waiting to look back in retrospect and question why we didn’t do more — I think we’re in that moment now,” Dhillon said.

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Canada won’t receive any Pfizer shots next week — here’s what you need to know about the vaccination campaign

Canada’s vaccination campaign is off to a slow start — and news this week that deliveries of the Pfizer-BioNTech product will be reduced dramatically over the next month has further complicated the national rollout.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the military commander leading vaccine logistics at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), has said Pfizer will not ship a single vial of its highly effective vaccine to Canada next week as the pharmaceutical giant retools its production facility in Puurs, Belgium to boost capacity.

The announcement is already prompting some provinces to warn that they will have to curtail appointments in the weeks ahead as they direct the existing supply of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to patients who need their second shots.

Why is Canada getting less vaccine than anticipated?

Pfizer is grappling with unprecedented global demand for its vaccine as the world scrambles to inoculate patients against the deadly novel coronavirus.

While the company had projected it could manufacture up to 1.3 billion shots this year alone, it is now shifting gears to pump out even more.

The company is making upgrades to its Belgian plant so that it can manufacture up to 2 billion doses this year to meet the insatiable demand. In order to complete those upgrades, some production lines will have to be idled and Pfizer won’t have enough vials to go around in the short term to meet its previously promised delivery schedule.

“Pfizer and BioNTech are working relentlessly to support the further rollout of the vaccination campaigns worldwide by not only expanding their own manufacturing capacities but also by adding further suppliers as well as contract manufacturers to increase total manufacturing capacity,” the company said in a news release announcing the disruptions.

A driver pulls his truck out of the Pfizer plant in Puurs, Belgium on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. (Valentin Bianchi/AP Photo)

Fortin has said that, starting next week, Canada’s deliveries will be reduced by up to 50 per cent over a four-week period, punting as many as 400,000 doses to a later date.

While the company has another manufacturing facility in Kalamazoo, Mich., the Belgian plant alone is supplying Canada, the European Union and the United Kingdom. U.S. deliveries will continue uninterrupted.

Will Canada, the EU and the United Kingdom be equally affected by these disruptions?

No. Announcing the delays last week, Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said she expects Pfizer will treat all countries equally as it reduces shipments with an eye to restoring service in February.

But Pfizer isn’t treating every customer the same way. While Canada will receive zero doses next week, the company said it “will be back to the original schedule of deliveries to the European Union beginning the week of January 25.”

Pfizer has promised the EU that it will then “increase delivery beginning week of February 15, resulting in our ability to deliver the fully committed quantity of vaccine doses in the first quarter and significantly more in the second quarter.”

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

When asked why Pfizer will not make the same commitment to Canada, Anand said that she expects the company to treat all countries equitably — but could not say why Canada has been singled out.

“This was very disappointing and I spent the weekend on the phone with Pfizer executives and my team. We reiterated firmly the importance for Canada to return to our regular delivery schedule as soon as possible,” she said at a press conference Tuesday.

Pfizer did not respond to specific questions about why it is showing more favourable treatment to the EU. In an emailed statement, the company said the details of its agreements with governments are “confidential.”

“Multiple countries around the world will be impacted in the short term in order for us to quickly enable increased production volumes afterwards,” the spokesperson said. 

The U.K. delivery schedule is less clear. The government there has said it is “in close contact” with all suppliers so that it can achieve its target of immunizing all those over age 70 by February 15.

So how many doses will Canada receive over the next number of weeks?

It’s hard to say for sure. Fortin had said Canada would see a 75 per cent drop next week in deliveries — but then had to correct that forecast after learning Canada wouldn’t receive a single dose.

Just last week, Fortin had been expecting delivery of 208,650 doses to the provinces every week for the rest of this month. Fortin also said Canada is expected to receive 366,000 Pfizer doses per week in February.

Speaking to the press this week, Fortin conceded those numbers are no longer accurate.

“Those numbers remain to be confirmed by Pfizer Canada. In fact, we have regular conversations with them and we hope and we expect to have clarity on those numbers,” Fortin told reporters at a public health briefing.

Is Canada still on track to get 4 million doses of the Pfizer product by the end of March?

The government has said yes. While the deliveries may change, the government insists its medium-term targets are more certain.

By the end of the first quarter, Canada is expecting four million doses from Pfizer and another two million doses from Moderna — enough to vaccinate some 3 million Canadians with these two-dose products.

WATCH | Canada affected by Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine production delay in Europe:

Federal Procurement Minister Anita Anand made the announcement to reporters in Ottawa on Friday. 2:38

But these delays mean that many people will be kept waiting much longer for shots than they originally anticipated. While deliveries might return to a more normal flow, it will be difficult for provinces to pump through hundreds of thousands of patients in a short timeframe to reach vaccination targets.

The delivery hiccup also could push off the vaccination campaign for the general population, which had a start date of April 1.

Pharmacies have said they could vaccinate as many 2.5 million people per week if all 11,500 community pharmacies in this country are mobilized, but the lack of supply has delayed their participation in the effort.

Data released by PHAC Thursday suggest 10 million more people could be fully vaccinated between April and June, for a cumulative total of 13 million people inoculated since the start of the campaign.

And if other vaccines apart from the Pfizer and Moderna products are approved over that time period, 10 million more patients could complete the vaccine regime by the end of June, for a combined total of 23 million.

The PHAC data also suggest that 36 million Canadians can be vaccinated by the end of September, if all goes well and there aren’t any significant delivery disruptions in the interim.

What is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doing about this Pfizer delay?

While the prime minister of Israel has had more than a dozen calls with the CEO of Pfizer, and the president of the European Union has personally reached out to the company’s leadership, Trudeau has said that Anand is the lead on this file.

“I can assure you that Minister Anand is talking almost daily with Pfizer and the other vaccine companies to ensure that we get as many doses as possible, as quickly as possible, and that work will continue,” he said. “We will not rest, we will not slow down.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and his Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, second left, attend the arrival of plane with a shipment of Pfizer coronavirus vaccines at Ben Gurion Airport, near the city of Lod, Israel, on Jan. 10, 2021. (Motti Millrod/AP Photo)

When pressed by Vassy Kapelos, host of CBC’s Power & Politics, to state whether Trudeau has personally contacted Pfizer to ask for more doses, Anand would only say that she has been in “close communication” with the prime minister.

Some observers have said Trudeau should ask U.S. President Joe Biden to temporarily float Canada some vaccines from the Michigan plant as a sign of goodwill — especially after Biden rescinded the presidential permits for the Keystone XL pipeline.

So how are the provinces reacting to all this?

Not well. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has said the delivery delays will be very disruptive. The province also has said the temporary stoppage could mean its goal of immunizing all long-term care residents in the province by Feb. 15 won’t be achieved.

“If I was in (Trudeau’s) shoes … I’d be on that phone call every single day. I’d be up that guy’s yin-yang so far with a firecracker he wouldn’t know what hit him,” he said of Pfizer’s executives. “I would not stop until we get these vaccines.”

On Wednesday, Ford called Pfizer Canada President Cole Pinnow to discuss the situation.

“He reiterated the serious impact these cancelled shipments will have on Ontario and sought answers as to why Canada isn’t receiving vaccines as quickly as other countries,” Ford’s office said in a media statement after the call.

Ford also has suggested Biden should “help out its neighbour” by releasing some shots to Canada.

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/Canadian Press)

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday the province is putting a temporary hold on the first dose of COVID-19 vaccinations to ensure it has enough vaccine to provide a second dose to people who have already received their first shot.

“By pausing first appointments, we can ensure enough vaccine is allocated for committed second-dose appointments,” Kenney said.

How is Canada doing compared to the rest of the world?

Canada has administered some 700,000 shots – roughly 1.7 per cent of the population has received at least one dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna products. In Ontario, about 40,000 people have been fully vaccinated against the virus.

The United States has vaccinated three times more people per capita than Canada.

The U.K., too, has been a world leader in getting shots into the arms of patients. Nearly 7.5 per cent of the British and Northern Irish population has so far received at least one dose.

Canada’s vaccination effort has also been outpaced to date by those in Bahrain, Denmark, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Slovenia, Spain and the United Arab Emirates, among others.

But according to the latest data collated by the University of Oxford-based Our World in Data, Canada has administered more shots per capita than G7 partners like Germany and France, and middle-income countries like Argentina and Costa Rica.

“I had a lovely conversation with Angela Merkel yesterday morning in which she sort of complained to me that every day she gets it from the German media that they’re not doing as well as Canada,” Trudeau told reporters Tuesday.

“I think a lot of people are comparing stories from country to country and trying to figure out how we can all move quicker.”

The EU authorized the Moderna product for use two weeks after Health Canada regulators gave that vaccine the necessary approvals, which could account for the slower start to vaccination campaigns in countries like Germany.

What about the other promising vaccine candidates?

Health Canada regulators are still reviewing clinical trial data for both the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson products. Canada has placed orders for doses from these companies but a delivery schedule is far from certain, given that the regulatory review is still underway.

The U.K. approved the AstraZeneca vaccine on Dec. 30.

The product from Johnson & Johnson’s pharmaceutical division, Janssen, has not been approved for use anywhere in the world. Some countries are eager to secure doses of this vaccine because it only requires one shot.

The company has not yet presented publicly any final data on its effectiveness, although some early results, published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, are promising.

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COVID-19 vaccines are an ‘astonishing’ feat, but they won’t end pandemic overnight

This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.

While the arrival of two COVID-19 vaccines in recent weeks has provided hope of an end to the pandemic, the harsh reality is that the number of cases and hospitalizations in Canada has never been worse.

COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU admissions across the country have risen higher this month than at any point in the pandemic. Deaths haven’t been this high since May.

Ontario has hit a trend of more than 2,000 cases per day for the first time. Quebec has almost 1,000 COVID-19 patients in hospital. Alberta reported its highest number of deaths in a single day. B.C. currently has more than 10,000 active cases

Almost a year after the coronavirus emerged, despite everything we’ve learned about COVID-19 and the fact that our health-care system is once again at risk of being overwhelmed, statistics such as these don’t appear to have the same impact they once did.

“We have so many numbers thrown at us all the time and I think people have become a little bit numb to them,” said Ashleigh Tuite, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. 

“The numbers are overwhelming to people and I think it’s hard for [the figures] to remain meaningful, because they just keep going up.”

WATCH: Trudeau on why many Canadians aren’t listening to pandemic messaging

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters at Rideau Cottage on Friday. 1:58

It could be many months before the impact of the vaccines is felt — and they won’t immediately put a stop to a virus that has been spreading unchecked in communities for the better part of a year.

That’s why politicians and public health officials have been pleading with Canadians to continue to follow guidelines and avoid gathering during the holiday season.

“A vaccine in a week or in a month won’t help you if you get COVID-19 today,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during a national address on Friday. “We’re coming into the final miles of this crisis and we can’t give up now.”

Vaccine development ‘extraordinary’

There’s been a disconnect between the public health guidance and the source of infections, but it’s not exactly clear where.

Long-term care homes, essential workers and low-income, racialized communities continue to be hit disproportionately hard by COVID-19 across the country, but we still have no idea where many people are becoming infected — more than a third of our total COVID-19 cases transmitted are from an unknown source.

If not for the arrival of the vaccines, many observers say they would have trouble seeing an end to the pandemic.

Two people walk past a COVID-19-themed mural in downtown Toronto in July. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“I can’t imagine where we’d be if we had to go through another year of this,” said Dr. David Naylor, who led the federal inquiry into Canada’s national response to the 2003 SARS epidemic and now co-chairs the federal government’s COVID-19 immunity task force.

Helen Branswell, one of the top infectious disease journalists in the world, calls the arrival of the vaccines “extraordinary.”

“It’s astonishing that 11 months after the posting online of the [genetic] sequence of the new virus, that vaccines were designed and tested all the way through Phase 3, and were produced and are starting to be used,” said Branswell, a former health reporter at The Canadian Press who joined STAT in 2015.

In time, she hopes the vaccines will “make a significant dent,” but acknowledges it could be many months before we return to some semblance of normal.

Inoculating a nation

The initial vaccine doses may make for good photo ops, but they won’t put an immediate stop to the virus.

“We’re going to see a very small impact with the first 250,000 doses,” Naylor said.

The only point at which we’ll see a “rapid difference” in rates of hospitalization and death, he said, is when health-care workers and long-term care residents are widely vaccinated across the country.

Canada will receive a combined total of six million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna and COVID-19 vaccines, pending approval of the latter, and distribute them to a total of three million Canadians in the first quarter of 2021.

“I would hope that as we get going through the first quarter, with another 2.75 million Canadians immunized, that we’ll get somewhere,” Naylor said. “But the real turn from the standpoint of broad community spread is going to come when we do that second wave [of vaccinations] through April, May, June.”

Naylor said that even with a total of three million Canadians successfully immunized with the two-dose vaccines in the first stage of Canada’s vaccine rollout plan, we’re still left with “daunting” numbers.

WATCH: Trudeau updates Canadians on the number of vaccine doses expected to arrive soon in Canada 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters outside Rideau Cottage on Friday. 1:57

“To get to a level where you slow this down, you need to vaccinate about 20 million Canadians minimum,” he said. “That’s 400,000 shots a day for three months solid, seven days a week — that’s a massive task.”

‘We can’t give up now’

Despite the unprecedented challenge, Naylor remains cautiously hopeful. 

“I’m very optimistic that we’re going to see this thing slow in the summer, meaningfully, and that we will be breathing more easily in the fall,” he said. “But I think we’ve got a tough few months ahead.”

Canada is leading the world in reserving COVID-19 doses per person. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Branswell said it remains to be seen whether the vaccines provide long-lasting immunity and whether or not they block infection and transmission of COVID-19, or if they merely protect people from developing symptoms.  

“We have to see how these vaccines work in people, even though they were highly efficacious in the trials. What you see in a trial is typically not what you get in widespread use — effectiveness in the real world is generally lower. But in the main I’m very hopeful,” she said.

“I just hope people can sort of understand that just because there are vaccines doesn’t mean you don’t need to be cautious in the time going forward.”

Trudeau echoed those comments on Friday.

“We need to take this very seriously as numbers head in the wrong direction,” he said. “Our fight against this virus is not over.”

To read the entire Second Opinion newsletter every Saturday morning, subscribe by clicking here.

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Henrik Lundqvist won’t play with Washington Capitals this season due to heart condition

Star goalie Henrik Lundqvist will sit out the upcoming NHL season because of a heart condition, he said Thursday, about two months after he joined the Washington Capitals following 15 years with the New York Rangers.

Calling it “a pretty tough and emotional day” in a video posted on social media by the Capitals, Lundqvist said he has been taking various tests on his heart “for several weeks.”

“And after lots of discussions with doctors around the country, and finally receiving the last results earlier this week, I unfortunately won’t be able to join the team this year,” Lundqvist said.

“It’s still very hard for me to process all of this,” Lundqvist said. “And kind of shocking, to be honest.”

The 38-year-old from Sweden was bought out by the Rangers and signed a $ 1.5 million, one-year deal with Washington in October to try to earn his first Stanley Cup — and try to help Alex Ovechkin win a second.

“The Washington Capitals are supportive of Henrik’s decision to step away from hockey at this time due to his heart condition. Our players’ health is of the utmost importance, and we stand behind Henrik’s decision,” the club said in a statement. “We want to wish him and his family all the best moving forward.”

The plan had been for the longtime face of the Rangers to share goaltending duties for Washington with 23-year-old Ilya Samsonov. Washington added Lundqvist to take the spot of 2016 Vezina Trophy and 2018 Stanley Cup winner Braden Holtby, who left to sign an $ 8.6 million, two-year deal with the Vancouver Canucks.

Lundqvist has appeared in 887 NHL regular-season games, plus another 130 in the playoffs, and he came close to a championship in 2014, leading the Rangers to the Cup Final. He lost post-season series to the Capitals in 2009 and 2011, then eliminated them in 2012, 2013 and 2015.

But he hadn’t participated in the playoffs with New York since 2017 until two games in the qualifying round of the expanded, 24-team playoffs this past summer.

“The risk of playing without remedying my condition is too high,” Lundqvist wrote Thursday on Twitter, “so I will spend the coming months figuring out the best course of action.”

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