California Reports Coronavirus Variant Case

Health officials in the U.S. state of California said a patient there has been infected with a coronavirus variant first detected in Britain, and that it is likely more cases will be identified in the United States.California is the second state with the COVID-19 variant strain, following a case in Colorado earlier this week.As was true with the Colorado case, the California Department of Public Health said the person infected there also had no known travel history.California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly called the development “concerning” and stressed the importance of known methods of preventing coronavirus spread, such as wearing masks, social distancing, staying home and avoiding travel.”It appears that this particular mutation does make the virus better at transmitting from one person to another,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease specialist.During an online discussion Wednesday with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Fauci said virus mutations are normal, and that he was “not surprised” additional cases of the COVID-19 variant would be found in the country.He also said the variant is not believed to cause more severe illness than earlier forms, and that vaccines already being deployed should be just as effective against it.The United States has begun vaccinations of frontline health care workers and high-risk populations such as those living in nursing homes using two vaccines given emergency use authorization.The vaccines will then be made available to other groups in the coming months.Fauci said if the vaccination program progresses as it should through May, June …

Alarm in Australia as COVID-19 Infections Grow

Tough New Year’s Eve restrictions are being put in place as Australia’s biggest city struggles to contain growing coronavirus clusters.Sydney’s COVID-19 outbreak has been described by health officials as “a bit of a roller coaster ride.” Australia’s biggest city accounts for most of the estimated 204 active infections across the country.Parts of its northern coastal suburbs, where a cluster of cases emerged about two weeks ago, remain in lockdown. Infections have been detected in other parts of the city.The authorities have banned large gatherings on New Year’s Eve to “avoid super spreading events.” Sydney’s famous fireworks display will go ahead, but crowds won’t be allowed to gather around the harbor to watch.Gatherings have been limited, and visits to nursing homes banned for at least a week to try to curb the spread of the virus.“Please, the last thing we want is to welcome in 2021 with a super-spreading event,” said New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian. “2021, all of us are hoping, will be easier on us than 2020 and let us start the year off on a positive foot by doing the right thing, by respecting the restrictions that are in place, but also demonstrating common sense.”Experts are calling for the state government to impose a citywide lockdown as infections grow.In response, other Australian states and territories are restricting travel for residents from Sydney.In Victoria, six coronavirus cases have been reported in the past two days, which authorities have linked to infections further north in Sydney.Residents in Victoria are …

Scientists Trying to Understand New Virus Variant

Does it spread more easily? Make people sicker? Mean that treatments and vaccines won’t work? Questions are multiplying as fast as new variants of the coronavirus, especially the one moving through England and now popping up in the U.S. and other countries.Scientists say there is reason for concern and more to learn but that the new variants should not cause alarm.Worry has been growing since before Christmas, when Britain’s prime minister said the coronavirus variant seemed to spread more easily than earlier ones and was moving rapidly through England. On Tuesday, Colorado health officials said they had found it there. And on Wednesday, California officials reported a case.Here are some questions and answers on what’s known about the virus so far.Q: Where did this new variant come from?A: New variants have been seen almost since the virus was first detected in China nearly a year ago. Viruses often mutate, or develop small changes, as they reproduce and move through a population.Most changes are trivial. “It’s the change of one or two letters in the genetic alphabet that doesn’t make much difference in the ability to cause disease,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist who directs a global health program at Boston College.A more concerning situation is when a virus mutates by changing the proteins on its surface to help it escape from drugs or the immune system, or if it acquires a lot of changes that make it very different from previous versions.Q: …

California Has Nation’s 2nd Confirmed Case of Virus Variant

California on Wednesday announced the nation’s second confirmed case of the new and apparently more contagious variant of the coronavirus, offering a strong indication that the infection is spreading more widely in the United States.Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the infection found in Southern California during an online conversation with Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.”I don’t think Californians should think that this is odd. It’s to be expected,” Fauci said.Newsom did not provide any details about the person who was infected.The announcement came 24 hours after word of the first reported U.S. variant infection, which emerged in Colorado. That person was identified Wednesday as a Colorado National Guardsman who had been sent to help out at a nursing home struggling with an outbreak. Health officials said a second Guard member may have it, too.The cases triggered a host of questions about how the version circulating in England arrived in the U.S. and whether it is too late to stop it now, with top experts saying it is probably already spreading elsewhere in the United States.”The virus is becoming more fit, and we’re like a deer in the headlights,” warned Dr. Eric Topol, head of Scripps Research Translational Institute. He noted that the U.S. does far less genetic sequencing of virus samples to discover variants than other developed nations, and thus was probably slow to detect this new mutation.The two Guard members had been dispatched Dec. 23 to work at the Good Samaritan Society …

Students Want Universities to Boost Communication During Pandemic

College students say clearer communications with their institutions could improve learning during the COVID-19 pandemic that has limited most classes to online.Better communications include transparent decision-making, a 24/7 chatbot, text messaging and better IT support, according to a poll of 2,200 students and staff in Spain, the United States, Britain, Australia, France, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark.While all students reported diminished trust with university leadership during the pandemic, students in the U.S., Britain and Spain reported the greatest amount of disconnect from their institutions.Students and staff also asked for testing for COVID-19 and personal protection equipment (PPE) such as masks. Contact tracing was another measure students and staff said was important.To date, COVID-19 has killed more than 1.8 million people worldwide, including 341,000 in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University.When asked, “What are your expectations of your institutions in moving forward?” students said they wanted more career advice, support and “credentials other than a degree,” such as internships or co-ops.Students also asked for more flexibility in their online education, such as course options and scheduling around other responsibilities, like jobs.Reduced tuition and more financial aid were ways institutions could help students during the pandemic, the student respondents said.Despite complaints about online learning, 44% of students polled agreed that they were learning as much online as they would in person, while 32% disagreed and 25% were neutral on the issue.The poll was conducted in August and September 2020 by the research arm of the …

Britain Approves AstraZeneca Vaccine, Offering Hope Amid Surge in COVID-19 Infections 

Britain became the first country to approve the coronavirus vaccine developed jointly by Oxford University and AstraZeneca Wednesday. Scientists say the vaccine could be a game changer in the global fight against the pandemic.   Regulators say the vaccine has shown around 70% effectiveness against COVID-19, a relatively high figure compared to vaccines for many other diseases.   “This vaccine, COVID-19 vaccine AstraZeneca, has been approved for use in people aged 18 years and older, with two standard doses, four to 12 weeks apart,” said Dr. June Raine, CEO of Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).   “As I’ve said before, and I will say again today, the safety of the public always comes first. The MHRA’s approval has been reached following a thorough and scientifically rigorous review of all the evidence of safety, of quality and of effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine AstraZeneca,” Raine added, during a press conference Wednesday in London.   Earlier in December, Britain was the first of several Western nations to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is around 95% effective. However, it is more expensive at around $20 per dose and must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius.   In contrast, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine costs around $4 per dose and only needs to be stored at refrigerator temperatures.  In an interview with VOA, Dr. Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading in Britain, said those attributes make the drug particularly suitable for less well-funded health systems.  “Developing countries with a less sophisticated cold chain and with smaller budgets will be …

Britain Drug Regulatory Agency Approves Second COVID-19 Vaccine for Emergency Use

The year 2020 is ending with good news about two more potential vaccines that could slowly bring an end to the global COVID-19 pandemic that has killed nearly 1.8 million people out of a total of nearly 82 million infections.   Britain’s medical regulatory agency announced Wednesday that it has granted emergency authorization of a coronavirus vaccine developed jointly by British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca and Oxford University. Late-stage clinical trials of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine revealed it to be 70% effective against COVID-19. The vaccine had a 62% efficacy rate for participants given a full two doses, but tests of a smaller sub-group revealed it to be 90% effective when given a half-dose followed by a full dose weeks later.   The AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine is the second to be approved by Britain for its mass inoculation effort, which began earlier this month with the vaccine developed by U.S.-based Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech.  The new vaccine will be distributed across the country within days, with Britain having already ordered 100 million doses.   Unlike the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which needs to be stored in super-cold refrigerators at temperatures below 70 degrees Celsius, the newly approved vaccine can be stored at normal temperatures of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius, making it easier to transport and administer to people in poorer and remote nations.   But the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine has come under intense scrutiny over the number of people who took part in the smaller sub-group, which was just 2,741, and whether it is effective for people over age 55. …

New US Dietary Guidelines: No Candy, Cake for Kids Under 2

Parents now have an extra reason to say no to candy, cake and ice cream for young children. The first U.S. government dietary guidelines for infants and toddlers, released Tuesday, recommend feeding only breast milk for at least six months and no added sugar for children under age 2. “It’s never too early to start,” said Barbara Schneeman, a nutritionist at University of California, Davis. “You have to make every bite count in those early years.” The guidelines stop short of two key recommendations from scientists advising the government. Those advisers said in July that everyone should limit their added sugar intake to less than 6% of calories and men should limit alcohol to one drink per day. Instead, the guidelines stick with previous advice: Limit added sugar to less than 10% of calories per day after age 2. And men should limit alcohol to no more than two drinks per day, twice as much as advised for women. “I don’t think we’re finished with alcohol,” said Schneeman, who chaired a committee advising the government on the guidelines. “There’s more we need to learn.” The dietary guidelines are issued every five years by the Agriculture Department and the Department of Health and Human Services. The government uses them to set standards for school lunches and other programs. Some highlights: Infants, toddlers and moms Babies should have only breast milk at least until they reach 6 months, the guidelines say. If breast milk isn’t available, they should get iron-fortified infant formula during the first year. Babies should get …

Argentina’s Senate Poised to Vote on Legalizing Abortion

Argentina was on the cusp of legalizing abortion Tuesday over the objections of its influential Roman Catholic Church, with the Senate preparing to vote on a measure that has the backing of the ruling party and already has passed in the lower house.    If passed, the bill would make Argentina the first big country in predominantly Catholic Latin America to allow abortion on demand. The vote is expected to be close after what was expected to be a marathon debate, beginning at 4 p.m. local time (1900 GMT) and likely to stretch into Wednesday morning.    Demonstrators both for and against the bill came from around the country to stand vigil in front of the Senate building in Buenos Aires. Argentine senators attend a session to debate an abortion bill in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Dec. 29, 2020.”Argentina is a pro-life country,” one woman, who said she was from Cordoba province, told local television as she sat in a folding chair under an umbrella sheltering her from the Southern Hemisphere summer sun. She and others who knelt in prayer nearby said they were against the proposed change in law.    Maria Angela Guerrero of the Campaign for Legal Abortion activist group, speaking to reporters in front of the Senate, said she was “cautiously optimistic” the bill would pass.    On the other side of the debate is the Catholic Church, which is calling on senators to reject the proposal to allow women to end pregnancies up to the 14th week. Argentina …