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Leylah Fernandez makes quick work of Chinese opponent in Charleston opener

Canada’s Leylah Annie Fernandez beat No. 16 seed Zhang Shuai of China 6-3, 6-1 in the opening round of the Volvo Car Open on Tuesday in Charleston, S.C.

The 18-year-old Fernandez, from Laval, Que, saved four of five break points, while Shuai was one-for-six in the same category.

It was the first match of the clay-court season for Fernandez, who was ousted in qualifying for the recently completed Miami Open one day after winning her first career WTA Tour event in Mexico last month.

Fernandez, ranked 72nd in the world, will next face world No. 91 Danka Kovinic of Montenegro at the WTA 500 event.

WATCH | Laval’s Leylah Fernandez cruises past Zhang Shuai in straight sets at Volvo Open:

Leylah Annie Fernandez of Laval, Que., beat No. 16 seed Zhang Shuai of China 6-3, 6-1 in the opening round of the Volvo Car Open clay court tournament in Charleston, S.C. 0:35

Shuai, ranked 41st, has lost all three matches she has played in 2021.

World No. 1 Ash Barty of Australia headlines the field this week after capturing the Miami title.

Canada’s top-ranked player for Billie Jean Cup

Fernandez is the top-ranked player on the Canadian roster for the April 16-17 Billie Jean Cup playoff against host Brazil as world No. 6 Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga, Ont., and No. 120 Eugenie Bouchard of Westmount, Que., are not in the lineup.

Andreescu hurt her foot in the Miami Open final last Saturday, while Bouchard hasn’t played since March 16.

Fernandez is joined by Vancouver’s Rebecca Marino and Toronto’s Sharon Fichman and Carol Zhao.

WATCH | Andreescu retires from Miami Open final with injury:

Australian Ashleigh Barty claimed the WTA Miami Open title Saturday 6-3, 4-0 after Canada’s Bianca Andreescu was forced to retire in the 2nd set having fallen awkwardly earlier in the match with what appeared to be a right ankle injury. 6:03

Serbia has one player in the top 100 of the singles rankings — No. 85 Nina Stojanovic.

The Billie Jean King Cup is the new name for the Fed Cup.

The winner of the Canada-Serbia tie will play in the qualifiers next year for a chance to reach the 2022 finals. The loser drops into a regional group.

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CBC | Sports News

What’s behind Quebec’s targeted approach to the 3rd wave, and could it work?

The month of March featured considerable swings in Quebec’s messaging and action around the pandemic. If you’ve been having trouble keeping track, it’s understandable.

This week, the provincial government ordered schools and businesses in Quebec City, Lévis and Gatineau to close, only days after gyms in Montreal were allowed to reopen and churches allowed to welcome a maximum of 250 people.

On Tuesday, Premier François Legault said his government was watching the situation closely in select areas but insisted changes weren’t necessary — even as top experts, the province’s order of nurses and public health officials were questioning the lack of restrictions.

A day later, he called a 5 p.m. news conference and ordered three regions into lockdown, abruptly shifting them from an orange zone in the province’s colour-coded ranking system to a darker, more restrictive shade of red than in other red zones, including Montreal.  

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge, meanwhile, ordered English school boards to comply with a decree to have high school students return to class full time, even as students held protests saying they didn’t feel safe. And organizers of recreational hockey in Montreal are planning to restart in early April.

Health Minister Christian Dubé acknowledged the government’s decisions can seem confusing, but he insisted there is a logic in the chaos. 

“It can sometimes look inconsistent, but I tell you that we’re making all our decisions based on many factors, and I believe we are staying ahead of the game,” Dubé  told Radio-Canada on Thursday. 

So, what is the government trying to do? And is it the right move?

More targeted approach

In an interview Thursday, Dubé said the government is closely watching regions and sub-regions and acting as soon as its experts see transmission on the rise. The contagiousness of the variants means cases can spike much more quickly than in the second wave, he said.

Cases in Quebec City are now doubling every day, he said, and that region went from being a source of worry to a major concern overnight. (A single gym is now linked to more than 140 cases and 21 workplace outbreaks.)

“We act at the moment we’re certain of the trend, and before a major impact on hospitals,” Dubé told Radio-Canada.

Quebec is in a better situation than some other jurisdictions when it comes to vaccinations. More of the population has received one dose (roughly 16 per cent) than Ontario or France, both of which are seeing a more dramatic spike in cases.

Such a plan isn’t foolproof.

France tried a similar, targeted approach. But, with hospitals at risk of being overrun, President Emmanuel Macron reluctantly shut down schools for three weeks as part of another round of nationwide restrictions.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, as well, ordered new provincewide restrictions on Thursday, including the closure of gyms and stricter limits on gatherings.

Dr. Karl Weiss, a microbiologist and infectious diseases specialist at the University of Montreal, said Quebec once again finds itself at a “critical point” — and that the vaccination campaign needs to move quickly to be able to fend off the rising number of variant cases.

He noted that Quebec is in a better situation than some other jurisdictions. More of the population has received one dose of vaccine (roughly 16 per cent) than Ontario or France, both of which are seeing a more dramatic spike in cases.

Why not tighten restrictions sooner?

Legault, Dubé and Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec’s public health director, have frequently used the word “balance” when explaining the province’s approach.

They’ve made it clear their public health decisions involve keeping the virus in check, but also factor in the impact of disruptions to the education of school-age children, the mental health of the population and the effect on the economy.

WATCH | What’s the outlook for Montreal?

Prativa Baral discusses the outlook for Montreal in light of the government’s tightened restrictions in some other Quebec regions. 0:56

The government is also seeking to keep people onside, an increasingly difficult task as the pandemic drags on. Officials closely watch survey data from the province’s public health institute, which documents whether enthusiasm for restrictions is rising or falling among specific age groups and in specific regions.

“We have to find that balance because if we act too fast, we’ll lose co-operation from the public,” Dubé said Thursday, echoing past statements by Legault.

“We need the balance with mental health. We did everything we could so people could go to school and play sports.”

But is that helpful, if less than a month later those measures are back in place?

Dominique Anglade, head of the opposition Liberals, suggested that “playing the yo-yo” can be even harder on morale.

“Go to a restaurant here in Quebec City, you have people who are crying because they didn’t see it coming,” she said Thursday, a day after the restrictions were announced.

Premier François Legault has been reluctant to close schools, but he ordered them shut in three cities this week. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

“The other regions are asking themselves the same question today. If you are in Lac-Saint-Jean today, if you are in Abitibi today, if you are in Montreal today, you’re asking yourselves the question, what’s next? We’re asking the government to tell us what’s next.”

Prativa Baral, an epidemiologist and doctoral candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Md., says government messaging is crucial.

“Part of making sure people trust the government and trust the public health guidelines that are being put in place is the transparency aspect, but also thinking of things in the long term and not mixing that messaging,” he said.

Why would Montreal be any different?

As Legault has pointed out, Montreal has, so far, resisted a spike in cases.

The daily case tally has remained consistent for the past several weeks. But with looser restrictions, including the reopening of gyms and high schools back at full capacity, that may not last.

Baral said Legault’s categorization of Montreal as “stable” is worrisome.

“The rate of increase has not been as substantial as other regions that are going to be shut down, but we’re still averaging 300, 350 cases a day in Montreal,” she said.

“Because of the variants of concern, the 350 could very easily turn into a larger number of cases very quickly.”

Baral called the relaxation of restrictions in Montreal “incredibly premature,” and said the cause and effect is well understood: when restrictions are lifted, cases go up, as they did in the regions now in lockdown.

“There is no reason to think that the same thing won’t happen to Montreal, unfortunately.”

The city’s public health director, Dr. Mylène Drouin, has said repeatedly she expects to see a rise in cases — the goal now is to delay that to get as many people vaccinated as possible.

Earlier this week, Drouin said she expects variants to begin to make up more cases after Easter and it will be crucial to keep them under control.

“Every day we win against the variant is a day when thousands of people are vaccinated.”

People wear face masks as they wait for the start of a performance Centaur Theatre in Montreal, where a limited audience is now allowed. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

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CBC | Health News

Why Canada’s decision to delay 2nd doses of COVID-19 vaccines may not work for everyone

New research from two small pre-print studies suggests delaying second doses of COVID-19 vaccines by up to four months may not be the best approach for some older Canadians.

The research comes as some experts are also questioning whether Canada’s vaccination advisers, who recommended the delay, can keep up with rapidly evolving science during the pandemic.

Prior to the pandemic, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), which has provided guidance to the federal government on vaccinations since 1964, met just three times a year to discuss issues related to vaccines for influenza, mumps, measles and other viruses.

But a year after the pandemic was declared, with new data emerging daily, NACI has been thrust into the spotlight and forced to evaluate new vaccines for a novel virus faster than ever before.

“NACI’s committees are basically made up of volunteers, many with heavy daily responsibilities during the pandemic,” said Dr. David Naylor, co-chair of Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force.

“There’s no precedent for NACI to operate at this pace, and everyone is adapting on the fly.”

NACI has met nine times since Canada approved its first COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 10, but it has plans to ramp up in the coming months with another 13 meetings scheduled between now and the end of June.

Guido Armellin, 86, receives the COVID-19 vaccine during a clinic at a church in Toronto on March 17. A team was on-site administering the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to parishioners as part of a community outreach program to get seniors vaccinated at their place of worship. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The committee has previously overturned its initial guidance against immunocompromised individuals and pregnant women receiving COVID-19 vaccinations, as well as a controversial decision against the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine for those over 65.

Delay could leave cancer patients less protected, U.K. study suggests

Perhaps one of NACI’s most impactful recommendations on Canada’s vaccine rollout was the decision to delay second doses beyond manufacturing guidelines by up to four months, but emerging research signals it may not be the best approach for vulnerable Canadians.

A new pre-print study, which has not yet been peer reviewed, analyzed 151 older cancer patients and compared their immune response with 54 healthy adults after receiving the first and second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in the U.K.

The researchers concluded that delaying second doses to between eight and 12 weeks for most cancer patients left them “wholly or partially unprotected” and had implications on their health and the potential emergence of coronavirus variants. 

WATCH | Delaying some 2nd COVID-19 vaccine doses challenged by new data:

New early data suggests that Canada’s recommendation of delaying the second dose of COVID-19 vaccines to up to four months may not be effective in some older, more vulnerable patients, causing the vaccine advisory committee to re-examine its guidance. 2:36

“Our data advocates that bringing forward the second dose of the vaccine for patients who have cancer may benefit them,” said Leticia Monin-Aldama, lead author of the study and a researcher at the Francis Crick Institute in London.

“And that perhaps a sort of one-size-fits-all approach may not be ideal when delivering these vaccines to the population.”

NACI advocated for that universal approach to delay second doses by up to four months for all Canadians — the longest interval recommended by a country so far — based on limited real-world evidence and the reality of Canada’s vaccine supply.

The decision was also informed by findings from Dr. Danuta Skowronski, epidemiology lead at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), who determined that one dose of the vaccine was actually more effective than clinical trials had initially shown.

NACI said if second doses were stretched to four months across the country, close to 80 per cent of Canadians over the age of 16 could get at least one shot by the end of June.

But Canada’s chief science adviser, Mona Nemer, has said the decision to delay second doses amounted to a “population level experiment” and advised against the delay in older Canadians on CTV’s Power Play this week, citing a lack of data to back up the decision.

Darryl Falzarano, a research scientist with the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) lab in Saskatoon, is also against the decision to increase the time between doses and said there is a growing body of research that suggests it’s not the safest approach for immunocompromised and older adults.

“The initial data look like delaying the dose of the mRNA vaccines would still provide reasonable protection to the population from severe or moderate disease, and so vaccinating more people was looked at as the greater good,” he said.

“Now, in certain populations — older people, people with comorbidities and cancers — likely delayed boosting for them is sub-optimal and possibly will lead to revised recommendations for those groups.”

Darryl Falzarano, a research scientist with the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization lab in Saskatoon, is opposed to increasing the time between doses and says there is a growing body of research that suggests it’s not the safest approach for immunocompromised and older adults. (Debra Marshall)

B.C. study analyzed long-term care residents

A second pre-print study released this week from researchers in British Columbia, which has also not been peer reviewed, cast further doubt on the dose delay for seniors and found that their immune response may not be as strong as in younger, healthier people.

The study analyzed antibody levels in a dozen long-term care residents in Vancouver a month after receiving their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared with 22 younger health-care workers — 18 of whom had not previously been infected by COVID-19 and four who had.

“The level of antibodies in older residents was fourfold lower, so significantly decreased,” said Dr. Marc Romney, a clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and one of the authors of the study. “The function of those antibodies in older people was also compromised.”

Romney said antibodies are just part of the picture, and he also plans to look at the immune system’s full response in future research. But he said the fact that antibodies in the elderly didn’t neutralize the virus as well as in the younger health-care workers suggests the dose delay may need to be revised for them.

“There is emerging evidence that demonstrates that there are some populations that will probably not fare as well and have the same degree of protection following single doses of a vaccine,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician and member of Ontario’s COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Task Force.

“These are groups you would want to shorten the time between dose one and two.”

WATCH | The science behind delaying the 2nd dose of COVID-19 vaccines:

Federal government scientists have put their support behind delayed second doses of COVID-19 vaccines — which several provinces were already doing — and ongoing research shows some of the benefits of the adapted strategy. 2:04

‘This isn’t a regular vaccine’

The speed with which NACI members are able to make these decisions has come under fire.

Falzarano said NACI is typically used to working under a “slow-moving” vaccine regulatory process where vaccines can take up to a decade to go from research to rollout.

“Their job is to review vaccines, but their experience is reviewing them under a much different scenario,” he said.

“They are normally looking at a full data set when they have to make decisions. They would normally make very conservative decisions, and now, they find themselves in a much different scenario than what they’re used to — and I think that’s highly challenging for them.”

Visitors to a mass vaccination clinic in Toronto on Tuesday fill in paperwork as they wait in line. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization initially recommended against giving the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine to seniors, but that guidance changed on March 16 after it reviewed data. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

NACI’s decision to recommend against the AstraZeneca-Oxford shot for seniors on March 1 came despite emerging evidence from around the world demonstrating its ability to prevent severe COVID-19 in older adults.

But that guidance changed on March 16 after more real-world data on the vaccine’s effectiveness was reviewed by NACI, and CBC News broke the story revealing documents on the federal government’s plans to allow those 65 and older to receive it.

Alyson Kelvin, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University and a virologist at the IWK Health Centre and the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology, all in Halifax, said NACI should include more experts in emerging viruses and vaccine development to help navigate the research in the pandemic.

“This isn’t a regular vaccine that’s gone through the typical workflow for vaccine approval and vaccine development because it’s an emerging virus,” said Kelvin, who is also evaluating Canadian vaccines at the VIDO lab in Saskatoon.

“You need somebody who understands that dynamic, instead of what we would normally depend on for our medicines or vaccines.”

Dr. Caroline Quach-Thanh, who chairs NACI, responded to criticism during a news conference on March 16, saying that as new evidence emerged on the efficacy of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine in older adults, NACI was “busy with other files” that delayed its guidance.

“The committee is very busy, obviously, meeting weekly to discuss the emerging data on these important topics,” said Matthew Tunis, executive secretary to the committee.

“So there’s always inevitably going to be a bit of a lag between when a committee deliberates and when the advice is made public.”

Decisions take time, NACI chair says

Quach-Thanh responded to further questions about the delay in revising recommendations on CBC’s Power and Politics on Wednesday, noting that NACI isn’t equipped to review new evidence one day and make recommendations the next.

“It’s not possible, we can’t be that reactive,” she said. “I don’t think any advisory committee can be that reactive because it would mean that every time something changes, you move the needle one way or the next.

Dr. Caroline Quach-Thanh, who chairs the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, says NACI is currently re-examining its guidance based on new research, and new guidelines on the timing of second doses for seniors and the immunocompromised could come as early as next week. (Skype)

“Then it just means that you’re changing your recommendation every other day. So you need to gather that base of evidence before you change something.”

But even after NACI has finalized its recommendations, Quach-Thanh said, it takes an entire week to translate and upload them to the Public Health Agency of Canada’s website — precious time in a pandemic where new data emerges daily.

Quach-Thanh said the committee is currently re-examining its guidance based on new research, and new guidelines on the timing of second doses for seniors and the immunocompromised could come as early as next week. But Skowronski, with the BCCDC, said it’s too early to make that call definitively.

“This is a kind of a signal that we might want to follow, it’s of interest, but we cannot change or make policy on the basis of this sort of small study,” she said.

“It may come to pass that we will want to adjust depending upon how far we have come in achieving that goal of getting at least one dose into these individuals at highest risk.”

Skowronski defended the decision to delay second doses by up to four months in Canada and stressed that the benefits of vaccinating more vulnerable groups with an initial shot outweigh the risks of delaying a second.

“My preoccupation is in at least getting a first dose into those at high risk of severe complications, and we’ve not achieved that yet,” she said, adding that age was by far the biggest risk factor for severe outcomes from COVID-19.

“That’s job one. Let’s get that job one done, and then let’s debate the timing of the second dose.”

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CBC | Health News

This Winnipeg lab confirmed Canada’s 1st case of COVID-19. Then it set to work helping manage the crisis

On Jan. 23, 2020, doctors at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre admitted a 56-year-old man with what appeared to be mild pneumonia. Two days later, he was “Patient Zero” — the first COVID-19 case in Canada.

Four days late, it was senior research scientist Nathalie Bastien’s team at the National Microbiology Lab (NML) in Winnipeg that confirmed the case.

“When you want to become a scientist, when you’re a young kid, this is what you dream of, to be part of helping people and saving lives in a way by stopping the spread of the virus,” Bastien said in a recent interview from her lab. “It’s rewarding.”

Senior research scientist Nathalie Bastien and spent years after the SARS epidemic developing a universal test that could detect any type of coronavirus, but they weren’t sure it would work on the new virus, known as SARS-CoV-2 until they got the sample last January. (Public Health Agency of Canada)

Bastien’s work is one example of 150 different COVID-19 projects at the national lab, which is is the only Level 4 lab in Canada, capable of handling the world’s deadliest pathogens. 

Many of those projects are done in collaboration with academia, industry and public health partners, and more than 50 of them are related to pre-clinical research, including clinical trials in animals, testing of antibody-based therapeutics and vaccine collaborations.

It’s all part of nearly $ 2 billion in funding the lab has received in the last year as part of Ottawa’s COVID-19 pandemic response, although the lab would not give a breakdown of how that money is spent.

“Obviously, collaborating in an environment that is fast-moving, like a pandemic response, has its challenges but the willingness to work together to achieve that common goal, which is, ultimately, to protect Canadians, has been really rewarding to see,” acting scientific general Dr. Guillaume Poliquin said in a recent interview with CBC News.

Dr. Guillaume Poliquin, centre, is the acting scientific director general of the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg. (Warren Kay/CBC)

For Bastien, an expert on respiratory viruses such as the flu, SARS and H1N1, Canada’s first presumed positive case of this pandemic was an opportunity to see if years of work would pay off.

After the SARS epidemic, her team had developed a universal molecular PCR lab test that they hoped would be able to detect any coronavirus.

However, they weren’t certain it would work on SARS-CoV-2 until that first sample arrived at their Winnipeg lab.

It did work. And since then, the lab has made that first-generation test even more sensitive. Those efforts have led to the standardized PCR test now used in labs across Canada.

During the early days of the pandemic, all samples were sent to the NML from provincial and territorial public health labs to confirm the presumptive results.

The NML still helps provinces and territories if their labs are overwhelmed and also supports the PCR molecular laboratory tests being done at the border to confirm or rule out active COVID-19 infections.

As well, it’s constantly doing surveillance for variants of concern.

“We’re still working like crazy,” Bastien said.

Made-in-Canada supply chain

Scientists at the lab also stepped in to solve one of the early stumbling blocks of the pandemic, a global shortage in lab supplies and equipment needed to test swabs from possible COVID-19 patients. 

This was especially true for reagents, the chemicals needed to extract the genetic material from samples.

As backlogs for testing grew, the need for a “Made in Canada” solution became apparent.

“Half jokingly, we thought: ‘Well, if we can’t buy it, can we make it?'” Poliquin said.

Allen Grolla, pictured in West Africa in 2014. Grolla has analyzed lethal pathogens such as Ebola and Marburg where outbreaks of the deadly viruses occur, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Kenya, Bangladesh, Hong Kong and Guandong, China. (SYLVAIN CHERKAOUI/Doctors Without Borders)

So NML managers called up biologist Allen Grolla, known as a problem-solving MacGyver. 

Grolla was enjoying his first month of retirement but agreed to return to work. 

His task was to find the right chemical cocktail to create a reagent that public health labs across the country could use to diagnose COVID-19. By April 2020, the reagent was being manufactured at New Brunswick-based LuminUltra Technologies Ltd. and shipped to public health labs across Canada.

“When we started down the pandemic road, there was a capacity to do a few thousand tests [a day]. In Canada, the latest capacity figures are over 200,000 tests per day,” Poliquin said. “Sometimes, the crisis averted is not as glamorous as the crisis solved. But at the end of the day, that’s the one that’s most important.”  

Developing vaccines

NML scientists were the ones who developed the world’s first approved Ebola vaccine, which helped save lives in Africa. So when the coronavirus pandemic emerged last year, NML scientists started developing in-house SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidates.

Health Canada has approved four COVID-19 vaccines: Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. (CBC)

There are currently four approved vaccines in Canada, Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca-Oxford and Johnson & Johnson, but NML is focused on developing ones that could be effective against some of the variants of concern. There is one promising candidate that has started pre-clinical trials in animal model testing, Poliquin said.

The lab is also conducting animal tests of vaccine candidates being developed at Canadian university and industry labs to see if they’re ready for human trials.

Early warning system

Another project the lab is working on is a study with the Canadian Water Network that monitors the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater. The NML is providing technical guidance to labs across the country and helping them make reliable comparisons of data across communities.

Poliquin said that work made a difference in the Northwest Territories last December, when the lab alerted public health officials to community spread.

“They were seeing an increase in the amount of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in their wastewater in the community, where they knew of a single case that was isolated,” Poliquin said. 

“That really didn’t jibe with what we were observing. The Northwest Territories, in response, did some proactive testing and identified another five individuals that were then isolated. And from there, the signal intensity decreased. So I think that’s compelling evidence that using wastewater as an early warning system can, in fact, help avert larger outbreaks.”

The NML is providing technical guidance to communities testing their wastewater for the coronavirus. Here, researchers at the University of Ottawa test that city’s wastewater. (Pierre-Paul Couture/CBC News )

Quick investment is key

Dr. David Butler-Jones has been watching to see how his former colleagues are managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

He was Canada’s first chief public health officer between 2004 and 2014 and co-ordinated the response during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, which resulted in 428 confirmed deaths in Canada. An estimated 40 per cent of Canadians were immunized in a national vaccination campaign that began in October 2009. 

Butler-Jones also led the Public Health Agency of Canada from its creation and directed PHAC’s efforts to build up and co-ordinate provincial public health systems.  

Dr. David Butler-Jones was Canada’s first chief public health officer from 2004 to 2014. He says Canada learned from the SARS epidemic that funnelling money quickly into research is key when a crisis hits. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

While he says he’s seen a “diminishment in funding” in PHAC and NML’s budgets since 2012, Butler-Jones is pleased one of the big recommendations after SARS has been followed — funnelling money quickly into research where and when it’s needed.

Often, it can take more than a year between concept and development to writing proposals and receiving funding.

“When you’re in the midst of a pandemic or a crisis, you need that money now and you need to do the research,” Butler-Jones said.

Not the time to celebrate

Back in Toronto, public health officials have set up a field hospital in the parking lot of Sunnybrook Hospital’s Bayview campus with 100 beds to take the stress off the intensive-care wards as they prepare for a possible third wave of the pandemic.

A mobile field hospital, pictured March 10, 2021, is being assembled in an empty parking lot at the Bayview campus of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto amid fears of a third wave of COVID-19. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

Poliquin knows his own teams have been working full-out for more than a year. He hopes they eventually get a break and the thanks they deserve.

“We’ve all been so busy,” he said. “It’s been less of a time to sit back and reflect on our successes and more of a time to put our heads down and get the work done.

“I think there will be a time and a need to celebrate everything that was achieved.… But the work isn’t done yet.”

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CBC | Health News

Star Citizen Devs Angry, Forced to Work Through Life-Threatening Texas Storm

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The devastating snowstorm that hit Texas in mid-February killed at least 70 people and set record cold temperatures all across the state. Insufficiently winterized power infrastructure failed, plunging millions of people into darkness. Houses burned as homeowners attempted to light fires in dirty chimneys. A number of video game companies reached out to help their employees through the rocky time, including EA, Aspyr, Owlchemy, Certain Affinity, and Activision-Blizzard. Cloud Imperium Games also made public claims about helping to support its employees through a difficult time, but multiple people who work at the company have claimed this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Kotaku spoke with six employees at the company. As the storm moved in, a CIG office manager told employees to plan on working extra-long hours to make up for the shutdown, with “this week/weekend as a first option.” The manager continued, “Assuming roads are clear we also can manage a few people in the studio. If all else fails then enter PTO for whatever time you cannot make up.”

If you asked me to pick a game developer I trusted to understand the difficulty of any given task, Cloud Imperium Games would be at the bottom of my list. Image is of Austin following the February storm, from the ESA. CC BY-SA 2.0

CIG employees report organizing among themselves to share tips on surviving the Texas storm even as the head office made no attempt to do so. The company made no effort to distribute aid or information about where to go and what to do if you found yourself in a precarious and previously uncontemplated survival situation. CIG had no response for what employees who could not take PTO were supposed to do.

“I still felt obligated to check in on teams every couple hours,” said one source. “I just felt like I had to do it, even though most people weren’t talking those days. Everyone was just focusing on surviving.”

“I was talking to some other people in the [Austin] office, and apparently, some of the blowback from the other offices is that they were like ‘Oh, they just want a snow day. Why should we give them a snow day?’” another source told Kotaku.

An Amazing Explanation

CIG’s explanation for why its executives had so completely failed to respond to what was happening in Texas arrived in employee inboxes on Feb. 21, after the storm was over. According to management, the reason executives expected business as usual all week is that none of them had been paying attention to the news coming out of Texas.

This is incompetence or gaslighting in its purest form. It was literally impossible to glance at the news and not see something about the catastrophe in Texas that week. Any given individual might be utterly head-down in a project and working like crazy, but the idea that not a single person in the C-suites or their various assistants had the tiniest idea about the size of a disaster affecting one of its development studios implies either complete disengagement from the day-to-day business of running the company or an equally unacceptable inability to prioritize literal employee survival over the need to get a new spaceship texture turned in by Friday. Chris Roberts eventually sent out an email to the entire company stating that no employee pay would be affected by the storm.

Star Citizen has raised $ 31.3 million dollars since November from crowdfunding.

Star Citizen broke its own fundraising records for 2020. Last June, it announced it had raised over $ 300M. Currently, it’s raised over $ 350M. Here’s their funding graph, showing a monthly intake of between $ 3M and $ 16M per month going back to last August. That’s not everything CIG has ever raised; private investment has accounted for at least an additional $ 62M being pumped into the company over time. One estimate puts the total amount raised by CIG between $ 450M and $ 470M to-date. Star Citizen claims 604 developers and the median wage for a game programmer in Austin according to Glassdoor is $ 50,432 and $ 64,355 according to Salary.com. Giving its employees a week of unexpected time off to deal with an incredibly rare emergency was never going to break the corporate bank. Nor was it going to matter to Star Citizen’s release date, given that neither the single-player nor multi-player version of the game have one.

“While I think the company ultimately came to the right decision…CIG’s slow and hesitant response and general lack of communication hit hard for employees that are already low on morale and feel this company doesn’t care about them,” one source told Kotaku. “With all those things on top of a game that feels like it’s coming closer and closer to a gacha for expensive ships and no actual gameplay, useless features being constantly shoved in and removed, where marketing holds absolute power over any other department, employees start to feel disheartened after awhile.”

Feature image by CIG. 

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New Study Proposes Warp Drive That Might Actually Work

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(Credit: Eduard Muzhevskyi/Getty Images) 
Exploring the universe in Star Trek is as easy as firing up the warp drive and zipping off to the next adventure, but real life is much more tedious without faster-than-light (FTL) travel. Physicists have speculated on the possibility of a real warp drive for years, but a new paper lays out a vision for a warp drive that might actually work. We still don’t know how to build it, but at least we know why we can’t build it yet.

Let’s say you want to visit Proxima Centauri, which is the closest alien solar system. It’s four light-years away, which works out to trillions of kilometers, or miles, or leagues, or whatever — in the trillions, it doesn’t really matter. It’s very, very far away. It would take millennia to reach Proxima Centauri with current technology, but if you can move faster than light, you could be there in no time. The problem is physics: General relativity says that nothing can go faster than light, a claim that has thus far held up to scientific scrutiny. 

In 1994 theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre proposed a model for a warp drive vessel that didn’t violate the laws of the universe, but it required exotic negative energy that we can’t produce (it may not even be possible). A new paper from physicists Alexey Bobrick and Gianni Martire started making the rounds late last year, claiming that a physical warp drive may indeed be possible. That paper has now been peer-reviewed and published in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity.

Unlike the Alcubierre Drive, the Bobrick-Martire version doesn’t require unfathomable amounts of negative energy. The paper doesn’t describe a vessel but rather a bubble of spacetime that could surround a vessel, a person, or anything else. The bubble (above) can behave however it likes, including accelerating to speeds faster than light. At least, that’s how it would look to an outside observer. To anyone inside the bubble, the laws of physics would remain intact as the “passenger area” consists of completely flat spacetime. Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder (below) broke the paper down when it first began circulating a few months ago. 

There are still problems to work out here, so don’t start packing for your space adventure quite yet. We don’t know how to make a spacetime bubble. The matter and energy distribution in such a structure are still a mystery. Even if we could make such an object, we’d have to find the right geometry to accelerate it efficiently. Something as small as the way people are sitting inside a warp bubble could change the amount of energy required. 

The important thing is that the Bobrick-Martire Drive gives us a stronger mathematical basis for studying the possibility of FTL travel. Physicists who are adept at sniffing out silly space travel hypotheses have given this paper their stamp of approval, and it will no doubt spur others to add their two cents. In Star Trek, they didn’t develop warp drive until 2063. We’ve got some time yet.

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Trudeau, Biden pledge to work together on climate change and freeing detainees in China

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden emerged from their meeting today promising a new tone in Canada-U.S. relations to help the two countries tackle key issues such as climate change, the imprisonment of two Canadians in China and the post-pandemic economic recovery.

“The president and I discussed the ambitious new partnership roadmap, based on shared values and priorities, that will guide our countries’ work together over the coming years,” Trudeau said.

“In the face of COVID-19, of climate change, of rising inequality, this is our moment to act. So we’re not wasting any time in getting down to work. Job one remains keeping people safe and ending this pandemic,” he added. 

Biden stressed the importance of tackling the pandemic but also spoke about working with Canada to influence other countries to step up their game on global challenges such as climate change.

“We also doubled down on our efforts to tackle climate change. It was really really encouraging,” Biden said. “Now that the United States is back in the Paris agreement, we intend to demonstrate our leadership in order to spur other countries to raise their own ambitions.

WATCH | Trudeau and Biden commit to collaboration on climate change, freeing detainees:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden held their first bilateral talks on Tuesday, committing to work together on climate change and building the economy back up after the pandemic. 2:36

“Canada and United States are going to work in lockstep to display the seriousness of our commitment at both home abroad,” the president said.

A key part of that effort, Biden said, would be working to align the two countries’ climate goals to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

Biden also reaffirmed his administration’s pledge to help Canada secure the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been imprisoned in China for the past two years. 

Kovrig and Spavor were detained in December 2018 shortly after Huawei telecom executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested by Canadian officials while she was changing planes in Vancouver. Meng was arrested on a U.S. extradition request over allegations she lied to a Hong Kong banker in August 2013 about Huawei’s control of a subsidiary accused of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.

“Human beings are not bartering chips,” Biden said. “We’re going to work together to get their safe return. Canada and the United States will stand together against abuse of universal rights and democratic freedoms.”

Biden said the two countries also agreed to better coordinate their approach toward China to protect against threats to both countries’ interests and values.

Building back better

Trudeau said the two leaders agreed to work together to help create “well-paying jobs and to help people who have been hardest hit get back on their feet.” Biden said the two leaders would work to ensure that the post-pandemic recovery benefits all genders and people of colour.

“That’s especially important because we know this pandemic is not affecting everyone the same way. Women are dropping out of the workforce at alarming rates …  Black, Latino and natives are also, and other minorities are particularly hard hit,” the president said. 

Biden said he and Trudeau spoke of working together on a range of other challenges, such as stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, encouraging multilateral institutions to promote transparency, strengthening supply chain security and to modernizing NORAD.

A “road map” released after the meeting said the leaders have directed their ministers of foreign affairs and national defence and, on the U.S. side, the secretaries of state and defence “to meet in a two+two ministerial format to further coordinate … joint contributions to collective security.”

Those meetings will effectively be a series of government-to-government negotiations over the future of NORAD, the modernization of which could cost upwards of $ 11 billion; with 40 per cent of that bill being picked up by Canada. 

WATCH | Biden, Trudeau, Harris, Freeland deliver opening remarks at virtual meeting:

U.S. President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland share opening remarks ahead of their virtual meeting. 9:23

Fighting climate change

Before the meeting with Biden, Trudeau said it’s good to once again be working with an administration that is serious about fighting climate change.

“Thank you again for stepping up in such a big way on tackling climate change,” Trudeau said today before going into the virtual meeting.

“U.S. leadership has been sorely missed over the past years, and I have to say, as we’re preparing the joint rollout and communique from this one, it’s nice the Americans are not pulling out all references to climate change and instead adding them in. So we’re really excited to be working with you on that.”

Trudeau said he has been looking forward to sitting down with Biden to discuss renewing the Canada-U.S. diplomatic relationship and getting both countries through the pandemic.

Biden, who spoke first during the brief pre-meeting appearance, said he was looking forward to working with Canada to tackle the pandemic and the economic recovery. The president also said he looked forward to discussing both nations’ approaches to tackling climate change, refugees and migration, and standing up for democratic values at home and on the global stage.

“As leaders of the major democracies, we have a responsibility to prove that democracy can still deliver for our people. There are a lot of leaders around the world who are trying to make the argument that autocracy works better,” Biden said. 

“Equity for everybody, ensuring the benefits of growth are shared broadly, that’s how we are going to win the battle for the future.”

WATCH | The full, closing remarks from Biden and Trudeau:

U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau share closing remarks after their virtual meeting. 10:52

Biden told Trudeau that both countries need to get the pandemic under control as soon as possible, and that he was looking forward to seeing Trudeau in person in the future.

“The United States has no closer friend, no closer friend than Canada. That’s why you were my first call as president, my first bilateral meeting and of course my vice president spent some time living up in Montréal for high school,” Biden said, adding that the communication channels between Canada and the U.S. are “wide open.”

Trudeau said the meeting will address ways the allies can work together to ensure a post-pandemic economic recovery.

“We’re also going to dig into the recovery, how we move forward on creating good jobs for Canadians and Americans, strengthening the middle class, helping those working hard to join it. As we move forward, there’s a lot to rebuild,” Trudeau said.

Plan for renewed partnership

Tuesday evening the two leaders released their five-page road map for co-operation, saying in a joint statement a revitalized partnership is necessary to “overcome the daunting challenges of today and realize the full potential of the relationship into the future.”

The document covers the same areas as the leaders’ closing statements, but with much more specifics about where the two countries would co-operate. 

On battling the pandemic, it said Biden and Trudeau agreed “on the importance of a transparent and independent evaluation and analysis, free from interference, of the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak.”

It also said the two countries would co-ordinate their approach to reopening the Canada-U.S. border “based on science and public health criteria.”

On climate, both leaders have agreed to partner with Indigenous-led conservation efforts and to safeguard the Porcupine caribou herd calving grounds important to the Gwich’in and Inuvialuit peoples, culture and livelihood. 

On the issue of diversity and inclusion the road map says both leaders agreed to direct their law enforcement agencies to modernize their approaches to policing to address systemic racism and discrimination. 

They also agreed to promoting gender equality, arguing that “empowering women and girls is the most effective approach to eradicating poverty and building a more peaceful, more inclusive, and more prosperous world.”

WATCH | U.S. congressman wants border open by July 4:

Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins told Power & Politics that, with vaccines on the horizon, he’d like to see U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau work toward opening the U.S.-Canada border by the Fourth of July. 2:24

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‘Boycotts don’t work’: Canada’s Olympic, Paralympic leaders dismiss idea of skipping Beijing 2022

With the next Winter Games in Beijing a year away, Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic leaders are dismissing the idea of a Canadian boycott even though human rights issues continue to plague China.

In an editorial published in the Globe and Mail and La Presse on Thursday, both David Shoemaker, CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee, and Karen O’Neill, CEO of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, left no room for doubt — Canadian athletes intend to compete in Beijing. The pair reiterated those thoughts in an interview with CBC Sports.

“We believe strongly in the power of sport,” Shoemaker said via Zoom. “We thought it was important to put a stake in the ground and to say we think these Games are meaningful. 

“We have very serious concerns and share the concerns of others about what’s going on in the host country, but we think our role here is to bring Team Canada to these Games, to be on full display, and be part of a conversation.”

There have been mounting calls for a sweeping boycott of the Beijing Games in light of the persecution of ethnic minorities in the country’s Xinjiang region as well as China’s crackdown on pro-democracy sentiment in Hong Kong.

WATCH | David Shoemaker on why Canada won’t boycott Beijing Olympics:

David Shoemaker, chief executive officer and secretary general of the Canadian Olympic Committee tells CBC News’ Heather Hiscox that boycotts “do not work” and “it’s important for us to be part of the conversation and be there” in China. 11:39

The international organization Human Rights Watch declared in its annual report that China is “in the midst of its darkest period for human rights since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.”

On Wednesday, a year out from the Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony, a coalition of 180 groups, including Tibetans, Muslim Uighurs, Inner Mongolians and residents of Hong Kong opposed to the deterioration of human rights and increasing repression by the Xi Jinping-led Communist party, issued an open letter to governments around the world calling for a boycott.

From a Canadian perspective, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor have been detained in China on suspicion of espionage since 2018. This has substantially strained relations between the two countries.

Despite all this, the final declaration of the G20 summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in November, which was signed by the Canadian government, made no mention of support for an Olympic boycott as a means of redressing these issues.

“We look forward to the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022,” it said.

And while the COC and CPC’s declaration of intent to participate is meaningful, it is the federal government that can ultimately decide whether the nation’s athletes will take part in an Olympics.

People hold signs calling for China to release Canadian detainees Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig during an extradition hearing for Huawei Technologies CFO Meng Wanzhou in 2019. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

In Thursday’s joint publication, both the COC and CPC point to the power of the Games to bring the world together and to advance the interests of the global community by celebrating Canadian performances and values on the international field of play. They conclude a boycott is not the answer to the problems China faces.

“The evidence is overwhelming that boycotts, especially through the singular lens of sport, do not work,” O’Neill said. “It’s important for our whole community, our athletes, coaches and support people who have been through so much lately to put this on the table. This is where we’re at, here’s what we’re thinking, and here’s where we stand in terms of how we’re going to move forward.”

‘Boycotts don’t work’

Canada joined the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics in opposition of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the Soviets led an Eastern-bloc boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

“This is not theoretical or academic, we have a history of knowing that boycotts don’t work,” Shoemaker said. “We are assured that our government is addressing this on a government-to-government basis as a high priority. There are myriad tools available to the government to deal with this diplomatically.

“We do not see the logic that as a first order of business to re-set the relationship with China, and to send a message, that we should in effect punish 300 athletes and boycott the Beijing Games.”

Visitors to Chongli, one of the venues for the 2022 Beijing Games, pass by the Olympics logo. A coalition of 180 rights group on Wednesday called for a boycott of those Games tied to reported human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in China. (Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press)

When contacted, the athlete leaders of both the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic teams for Beijing 2022 applauded the pro-active approach taken by the COC and CPC regarding the question of a potential boycott.

“A boycott means turning our back on the situation. Let’s instead have conversations and work towards solutions,” said Catriona Le May Doan, the chef de mission for Team Canada in Beijing and a two-time Olympic speed skating champion. “The athlete’s role will be to showcase Canadian values and help build bridges as they have always done.”

Gold medal champion skier Josh Dueck will be Canada’s chef de mission at the Paralympics in China.

“Now more than ever we need to engage athletes to empower people,” Dueck said from his home in Vernon, B.C. “By asking athletes to withdraw from the Games we would take away their ability to compete but also to bring these difficult issues to light. That is unfair on both a personal and conversational level to the athletes.”

The message is clear. The people who run international sport in this country believe it’s far more prudent and responsible to attend the Games in Beijing than to stay home in protest.

“It’s difficult, it’s complex. In saying we think the right answer is that we go and compete in China, we’re not saying that we minimize the significance of the issues that are coming to the fore,” Shoemaker said.

“We think when faced with the choice between engaging and being part of a conversation, amplifying voices, and participating in these Games versus detaching, pulling back, distressing people and further polarizing around viewpoints, the choice becomes abundantly clear.”

O’Neill agreed.

“Showing up, being part of the conversation, and some of the solutions that build bridges is the way forward in terms of sport thriving,” she said. “Leading with a boycott of sport is just not the thing to do and historically has shown us that it will not move us to where we want to go.”

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COVID-19 vaccines arrive in remote First Nations as leaders work to combat hesitancy

First Nations have begun to receive doses of COVID-19 vaccines as provincial immunization programs get underway, with Indigenous leaders encouraging people to roll up their sleeves.

Six of 14 Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations on Vancouver Island were priority recipients of doses of Moderna’s vaccine last week, said Mariah Charleson, vice-president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council that serves about 10,000 members.

The council employs nurses who are among those administering vaccinations so people see a familiar face they know and trust, she said.

Health officials need to work with communities to ensure the COVID-19 vaccination program is culturally appropriate, Charleson said, given the impacts of the residential school system and discrimination in health care as outlined in a recent report by former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

“There are many people in our communities who our nurses may not have ever seen, because [they] will just never go for help,” Charleson said.

Released in November, Turpel-Lafond’s report sheds light on widespread racial profiling based on harmful stereotypes that affect the care Indigenous patients receive in British Columbia. Of more than 2,700 Indigenous people surveyed as part of the investigation, 84 per cent reported experiencing some form of health-care discrimination.

Leaders confronting vaccine reluctance in communities

It’s understandable that many are reluctant to trust Canadian health officials, said Charleson, who’s encouraging people to get vaccinated.

“If you’re not doing it for yourself, do it for the elders in the community and the vulnerable,” she said in an interview.

Chief Simon John of Ehattesaht First Nation said he noticed some hesitancy about COVID-19 vaccines among residents of the Ehatis reserve on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island.

The community of about 100 members was hit with an outbreak of COVID-19 that spread to 28 people last month, so when John learned they would soon receive Moderna’s vaccine, he decided to lead by example.

“For us, as council, to take it first was our priority,” he said.

John said he received his first dose last Monday, along with about 30 other Ehatis residents and 40 people in the nearby village of Zeballos, including some elders and band members living off-reserve.

British Columbia has allocated 25,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine to at-risk members of remote First Nations for distribution by the end of February. As of last Monday, 10,700 doses of Moderna’s vaccine were available to First Nations, and 5,300 had been distributed to 18 communities.

Indigenous communities among priority groups

Indigenous Services Canada had confirmed nearly 10,000 cases of COVID-19 in First Nations communities across the country as of Friday, including 3,288 active infections, 452 hospitalizations and 95 deaths.

Canada’s advisory committee on immunization has identified Indigenous communities among priority groups for a vaccine that’s in limited supply.

In Alberta, residents of remote First Nations and people age 65 or older living in any First Nation or Métis community are among those the province is prioritizing in its third phase of immunization starting in February.

In Saskatchewan, 4,900 doses of Moderna’s vaccine have so far been sent to northern regions, where health-care workers, staff and residents of long-term care homes, along with people age 80 or older, are first in line to be immunized, including those living in First Nation communities.

Initially, “First Nations were not really engaged in terms of where this vaccine should be allocated,” said Dr. Nnamdi Ndubuka, medical health officer for the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority.

More recently, communication about vaccine distribution has improved between communities and the Saskatchewan Health Authority, he said.

The province said it’s expecting to receive 5,300 more doses of the Moderna vaccine this week, with smaller cities serving as regional distribution hubs.

Manitoba, meanwhile, began shipping 5,300 doses of Moderna’s vaccine last week in order to reach people in all 63 First Nations in the province.

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