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News, observations, and guesses January 2022

January 2, 2022

Almost 900,000 COVID-19 cases were detected on average each day around the world between Dec 22 and 28, with many countries posting new all-time highs.

Worldwide, there have been nearly 290 million COVID-19 cases and over 5.4 million confirmed deaths. The real death toll is certainly far higher and excess death projections estimate that 18 million have died in the past two years from COVID-19. Moreover, the rate of death has increased: About twice as many people died from the virus in 2021 than in 2020.

The USA broke records at least four times in the last week of 2021 for its seven-day average of new daily Covid-19 cases, reporting an all-time high of more than 386,000 new daily infections.

The high case count is already causing disruptions in essential services and experts are worried, that the US economy is going to shut down, not because of policies from the federal government or from the state governments, but rather because so many people are ill.

Omicron has 57 mutations – It’s almost like starting over again with a different virus. Data from South Africa, Britain, and Western Europe indicates that the Omicron variant is four times as infectious as Delta and approximately ten times as infectious as the original variant.

A virus that spreads faster means more people will be infected, which means there will be more deaths and hospitalizations for unvaccinated and anyone who suffers from a breakthrough case.

While most media revel about “mild” COVID, data from the UK and Denmark show that hospitalization rates for people infected with omicron are not much different from those infected with the delta variant.

Denmark keeps very close tabs on the coronavirus with a government institute devoted to testing, surveillance and modeling. Vaccine rates also are high and boosters are available. Yet nothing is stopping the omicron variant, according to experts, in a cautionary tale for similar countries. Omicron positives are doubling nearly every two days.

All studies and statistics depend on data which could be inaccurate, non-representative, and even plain wrong. An Omicron offshoot (designated BA.2) for instance could be more difficult to distinguish from other strains with routine PCR tests, making it harder to track the global spread of the heavily mutated virus.

The “S-gene dropout,” which helped researchers and public health officials track Omicron in the early days and verify its higher spread than Delta, is not being picked up in the BA.2 offshoot and without sequencing, it will be hard to track and distinguish Omicron cases from Delta or other variants.

The hope of “Mild Omicron”

In theory, if a less virulent strain becomes dominant, more people will become infected but fewer will be critically sick. The virus, while still a problem, also becomes part of the solution; every person who recovers from a mild case is left with greater immunity against future infections than any of the current vaccines provide.

The “mild” theme was quickly picked up by leaders who have vowed to never repeat the lockdowns and other restrictions of previous waves. They are aware that a faster-spreading strain during the holiday travel season in many areas of the world could have drastic social and economic implications.

Putative experts and the press are at the moment pushing every bit of Omicron hope they can find, to the degree that they are baldly misrepresenting research (which, even if it is accurate, must always be treated with caution). The main message is: “Omicron is mild and will end the pandemic”.

It happened before and one historical example it cited regularly:

In 1796 an English physician, Edward Jenner, observed that milkmaids who had gotten cowpox were immune to smallpox. He surmised, rightly, as we now know, that the disease was related. Smallpox, which has killed hundreds of millions of people dating all the way back to prehistory, is caused by the virus variola and is related to cowpox, catpox, and several other virus-caused “poxes (Orthopoxvirus family).” Our present day mandated vaccine against smallpox is also a related virus, vaccinia, which causes a small localized lesion leaving a scar and immunity against the variola or smallpox virus. Thus we are used to accepting a minor disease to protect against a lethal disease.

Could Omicron be the cowpox of Covid- 19? Is this relatively benign version the vector of immunity? Is nature providing us with the perfect vaccine that will spread itself in the world population causing mild disease and providing immunity that will, at long last, end this pandemic? Should we, in fact, facilitate its spread?

Wishful thinking maybe, as nobody knows for sure what will happen next.

According to a small study with 13 participants, published by South African scientists this week, people infected with Omicron may have increased immune protection against delta and as a consequence, Omicron could displace delta. Participants in the study also showed an increase in the ability of antibodies to block omicron reinfection.

“These results are consistent with Omicron displacing the Delta variant, since it can elicit immunity which neutralizes Delta making re-infection with Delta less likely,” the team of scientists, led by Khadija Khan at the Africa Health Research Institute, wrote in their findings.

Two small studies from England and Scotland also suggest that that Omicron is associated with a lower risk of hospitalization than Delta. All these findings have a high level of uncertainty because of small sample size and limited time.

Earlier data from South Africa show that Omicron is capable of infecting those who have received one dose of traditional vaccines and two doses of mRNA vaccines. Omicron has also demonstrated the ability to reinfect those who have already been infected by a previous variant.

Omicron is immune to natural antibodies from previous COVID-19 infections and make monoclonal antibody cocktails less effective. Which means that once someone is so sick as to require hospital treatment, doctors have fewer options available because drugs based on monoclonal antibodies don’t work. Supplies of newly developed drugs made by GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology are still limited.

As new mutations emerge, Omicron will not be the end of the line. Now one knows for instance if the new variant B.1.640.2, found in southern France and distinguished by 42 mutations and 37 deletions, will take off and conquer the land of Delta and Omicron. But it is concerning that this until now small number of patients have “moderate to severe” condition (what happened to Sars-2-CoV evolving into a cold-like virus?).

No one has a good handle on the total level of Covid cases, since asymptomatic cases are seldom caught. And it’s not as if asymptomatic cases are harmless. One large-scale study from February 2020 to February 2021 estimated that 20 percent of asymptomatic COVID cases result in long Covid. A meta-study by the Pennsylvania College of Medicine concluded even that half of those who contracted COVID-19 had gotten long Covid.

The menace of “long Covid”

A “Mild Covid” infection can nevertheless be debilitating when it leads to long-term or permanent disease and disability.

Even asymptomatic infection brings a significant risk of long Covid – a wide spectrum of more than 200 symptoms and conditions that can appear months after initial infection and apparent recovery, leaving children, adults, and elders disabled, chronically ill, and desperate.

To state it once again unmistakably: 20 to 50 percent of those who survive any Covid infection (from asymptomatic or “mild” to severe) will go on to live with (and sometimes die from) long Covid – a long-term, eventually lifelong, and even life-threatening or fatal chronic syndrome, the biological pathways of which are still largely unknown.

It remains to be seen what the present surge in infections will mean for long COVID. It stands to reason that with a higher number of infections, more people will end up with long COVID, with its ongoing symptoms that include extreme fatigue, breathlessness, and palpitations. Long COVID not only has devastating effects on individuals and their families but can also put pressure on healthcare systems and economies as people have to take prolonged periods off work.

Those living with post-viral conditions – such as ME/CFS, dysautonomia, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (Pots) – are used to being ignored, disbelieved, or misadvised.

Long-haulers with Covid should be extremely concerned about reinfection with the Omicron variant. The risk of reinfection is certainly high. A physician told on social media: “We have seen people in our clinic who have been reinfected with Covid and they have new or worsened long Covid symptoms after their reinfection.”

There may be other adverse health effects that have yet to come out. Physicians for instance notice an unusual uptick of myocarditis, while oncologists report a rapid increase of soft tissue cancers like malignant melanoma or renal cell carcinoma and lymph tumors like lymphoma or myeloma. This is anecdotal still and likely will be suppressed by news media but it is another warning that COVID-19 is maybe not as benign as experts and politicians present it.

A litany of lost chances

Will Big Pharma come to the rescue again? The Pfizer drug Paxlovid is the first easy-to-use pill to treat COVID-19. The five-day regimen reportedly prevents high-risk people from developing severe illness when taken within a few days of symptom onset. Molnupiravir, Merck’s oral COVID drug though appears to be less effective than originally thought. Both drugs have serious side effects.

There is increasing evidence that vaccinated individuals continue to have a relevant role in transmission and that vaccinations, even those including booster shots, are not offering much protection against infection. The question was always how many people vaccines will keep out of ICUs.

If it turns out that the result is at the level of Sinopharm against Delta, which is what the very poor protection from infection would suggest (contrary to the upbeat propaganda in the media), we are in big trouble.

Places like Chile, Bahrain, the Seychelles, Gibraltar, Israel were the first examples of the failure of the vaccination project back in May and June. They all had to decree post-vaccination lockdowns, in the case of Chile two of them, and recorded half or more of their deaths AFTER they had gotten to quite high levels of vaccination. The vaccines were not working as well as hoped for.

At a private gathering of 33 Pfizer-triple-vaccinated health care workers in the Faroe Islands, 21 were infected with Omicron — a superspreading event among 3-dose-vaccinated people. All received dose 3 within 2.5 months of the event.

Vaccines may not prevent infections but are still helpful to reduce severe disease, are we told, but even if the alleged 75 percent protection against severe disease is true, in the USA and Europe that means utter catastrophe — we only saw what infecting 20-25 percent of the population in a short period of time meant in New York and Lombardy early in the pandemic, and we know how that went.

Omicron has exposed the stupidity of the “vaccine-only” strategy of Western governments, which claimed that vaccines would, like a “magic bullet,” bring the pandemic under control without any further public health measures like obligatory masks, social distancing, or restrictions to gatherings and travel.

We’ve gone months without significant investments in indoor ventilation, distribution of effective masks and global vaccine access.

There is much that can be done in schools to reduce the risk of the spread of COVID-19 among children and staff. Mandatory mask-wearing and staggered break times can help but governments must ensure adequate ventilation in classrooms or install approved air filters.

A Swiss study found that poorly ventilated school classrooms recorded up to six times as many COVID cases compared with those that were regularly aired. The research by the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) looked at data from 150 classrooms in the Swiss canton of Graubünden. Each classroom had a CO2 monitor, which measures levels of carbon dioxide in the air. If this is high it suggests the room is poorly ventilated. It compared CO2 levels in classrooms with the number of children and staff testing positive. It concluded that badly ventilated rooms had six times as many cases as better-ventilated ones. The researchers recommend airing out classrooms by opening windows or outside doors more than usual – ideally three times each hour for five minutes at a time – even when outside temperatures are low.

An alternative of course is to invest in air filters, which filter out virus-containing aerosol particles. These are expensive but worth investing in as they will also reduce the spread of other airborne viruses among children and result in fewer lost schooldays.

A UK government pilot project is set to trial hospital air purifiers and ultraviolet light to limit COVID outbreaks. Once funding is confirmed, Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge will install filtration units and air sampling equipment across two of its wards to assess spread of the virus between patients. (Better late than never.)

Just like vaccines, masks (respirators) are not a perfect solution.

A German neurologist, Dr. Margarite Griesz-Brisson, MD, PhD (in pharmacology), who specializes in neurotoxicology and environmental medicine, warns that oxygen deprivation from prolonged Covid-mask wearing can cause permanent neurological damage. She states in her research:

The re-breathing of our exhaled air will without a doubt create oxygen deficiency and a flooding of carbon dioxide. We know that the human brain is very sensitive to oxygen deprivation. There are nerve cells for example in the hippocampus, that can’t be longer than 3 minutes without oxygen – they cannot survive. The acute warning symptoms are headaches, drowsiness, dizziness, issues in concentration, slowing down of the reaction time – reactions of the cognitive system.”

The reason so many mask wearers have NO CLUE this chronic damage is happening to them is because once a person has chronic oxygen deprivation, all of those symptoms disappear, because the person gets accustomed to the deprived state; however, their efficiency remains impaired and the lack of appropriate oxygen delivery to the brain continues to dangerously progress.

The end of travel and tourism?

The drastic contraction of international movement is likely to be one of COVID-19’s most momentous cultural and economic ramifications. The old way it was practiced, at vast scale, and across increasingly porous borders, has begun to look like it might be a terminal casualty.

In the first 20 years of the millennium, international tourism arrivals more than doubled, from 700 million in 2000 to almost 1.5 billion in 2019. Over that period, travel, for those of us lucky enough to enjoy it, has become synonymous with wellbeing, a vital adjunct of a fulfilling life.

During the pandemic UK international flights dropped 71 percent from pre-Covid levels. Heathrow, the UK’s largest airport, reported that passenger numbers were 60 percent lower in November than before the coronavirus pandemic and there were “high cancellations” among business travelers concerned about being trapped overseas for Christmas as Omicron spreads.

Airline operators said the government’s travel restrictions had dealt a fresh blow to travel confidence and predicted it was likely to take several years for passenger numbers to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Global airline carriers canceled 2,401 flights on Christmas Eve. At least 1,779 flights scheduled for Christmas Day were called off worldwide, along with 402 more that had been scheduled for Boxing Day. Several airlines had to cancel flights because of staff illnesses largely tied to the Omicron variant. In all, more than 8,000 flights have been grounded over the long Christmas weekend that began on Friday. Chinese air carriers and the airports in Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi’an were the worst affected.

US CDC data shows two-thirds of cruise ships are reporting COVID cases (5,013 cases between December 15 and 29) and US authorities are still monitoring and investigating 88 cruise ships hit by COVID while sailing in the country’s waters, with several of them reportedly denied port in the Caribbean. Another three are being monitored after reporting positive cases onboard. The Mexican government has offered to let cruise ships with COVID-19 positive passengers disembark in Mexico and to provide medical assistance for passengers.

While numerous countries around the world have banned arrivals from Southern Africa, where the variant was first detected, Asia-Pacific economies that kept deaths low with border closures early in the pandemic have gone further and introduced sweeping restrictions on travel.

Japan banned all non-resident foreigners, delivering a boost to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s approval ratings, while Australia announced a pause of its planned reopening of the borders to skilled migrants and international students.

Hong Kong, which has a strict “zero Covid” policy that has frustrated foreign businesses and residents, has banned travel to non-residents from three dozen countries and mandated 21 days of hotel quarantine for returning residents. Mainland China has had some of the strictest border controls and domestic restrictions throughout the pandemic, with only citizens and resident permit holders allowed entry.

53 of 65 confirmed imported Omicron COVID-19 cases arrived in Singapore through VTLs (Vaccinated Travel Lanes).

Malaysia and Singapore have delayed the introduction of a number of quarantine-free travel lanes, while South Korea has reintroduced 10 days of quarantine for all inbound travelers.

Even before Omicron, the Asia-Pacific region was largely closed to travel, with airline traffic down nearly 93 percent in October compared with the same month in 2019.

Humans have wasted unimaginable amounts of time and energy by moving around over long distances with cars, trains, ships, and airplanes. Was there more at play than simply the decadent joy-seeking of a generation who could? Was it merely a selfish moment in time, one that we now see, in the stark light of a pandemic’s recalibration of our priorities, for the indulgence it always was?

Living (or dying) with COVID

China is one of the few remaining holdouts who try to eliminate COVID-19, though it is increasingly difficult as infections seep through borders from all sides. Chinese authorities issued sweeping stay-at-home orders in the northern parts of Shaanxi province. The country is just weeks away from the Winter Olympics, with concerns growing that the games could further increase the spread.

The historic city of Xi’an — known internationally as the home of the 2,000-year-old Terracotta warriors — just reported over 150 new locally-transmitted for several days in a row. That brought the Xi’an cluster to 1,500 cases since the outbreak began on December 9.

China locked down all 13 million people in Xi’an after detecting Covid cases. The residents were (and still are) barred from leaving their houses except to buy living necessities every other day or for emergencies. Fortunately case numbers are falling now.

There was also an outbreak in eastern Ningbo city, where a small cluster of 7 cases has been linked to a garment factory.

A few bumps in the road

The worldwide surge in coronavirus cases driven by the Omicron variant is the latest blow to hospitals, police departments, supermarkets and other critical operations struggling to maintain a full contingent of front-line workers as the pandemic enters its third year.

A major hospital system in Phoenix, Arizona, has enacted crisis standards of care. Patients 75 and older will reportedly have to meet certain criteria to be eligible for life-saving care, and those 85 and older will not be eligible at all for some treatments.

There are 1,500 nursing vacancies in New York’s three largest hospitals alone, or about double the number at the onset of the pandemic. Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have 15 percent fewer workers today than when the pandemic began.

US states such as Massachusetts have called in hundreds of National Guard members to help fill the gaps in hospitals and nursing homes, where they serve meals, transport patients and do other nonclinical work.

Countries including Spain and the UK have reduced the length of COVID-19 quarantines to ease staffing shortages by letting people return to work sooner after testing positive or being exposed to the virus.

In Britain, train company LNER was canceling 16 trains a day. Transport for London, which operates the subway and employs about 28,000 people, warned of slowdowns because 500 front-line staff are off work because of COVID-19-related illness.

As Australia grapples with a growing COVID-19 caseload, Queensland’s top doctor Dr John Gerrard said infection with COVID-19 was required for the pandemic to evolve into an endemic. “In order for us to go from the pandemic phase to an endemic phase, the virus has to be widespread.”

The only two options to develop immunity were to get vaccinated, or get the virus, Dr Gerrard said. “We all have to have immunity, you will all have to develop immunity and there’s two ways you can do that: By being vaccinated or getting infected.”

And about Omicron: “But the early information we‘re getting is it seems to be a little milder and certainly the vaccine is protective. We’re not going to stop it. We’re going to just try and slow it down a little bit to enable people to get those third doses.”

In the USA, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines each canceled dozens of Christmas Eve flights, as Omicron has taken a toll on flight crews and other workers.

While the New York Times was cheerleading with the headline: “Design and Healing’ Shows How Epidemics Lead to Innovation,” about 2,700 New York police officers were absent at years end.

Facing a potential collapse of essential infrastructure, the US CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) announced a shortening of isolation and quarantine periods for essential worker, including those who work in healthcare, sanitation, grocery stores, pharmacies, and basic municipal services. US health officials later altered their isolation guidelines for asymptomatic cases generally to 5 days. Quarantine time for exposed persons is now also only 5 days.

The change is fiercely debated among medical experts. Erin Bromage, a biology professor at UMass Dartmouth, said that there is “absolutely no data that I am aware of” to support the switch in guidance. He added that people can still test positive on antigen tests up to seven or eight days after their initial test, even if they don’t have symptoms.

US CDC officials maintain that Omicron has a shorter incubation time of only three days, but incubation periods can be vastly different over a wide range.

Spain is reducing the quarantine period for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to seven days, while Italy is planning to relax isolation rules for those who came into close contact with infected persons. Portugal will shorten its mandatory self-isolation period for asymptomatic COVID-19 patients from 10 to seven days,

All this is in striking contrast to Chinese regulations, which include isolation periods of up to four weeks. Hong Kong authorities have tightened COVID-19 quarantine requirements for crew of the city’s flagship carrier Cathay from three days mandatory confinement at a designated hotel to seven days, effectively forcing the airline to suspend all long-haul cargo flights.

It will soon come out which policy yields the better results.

Save the children?

Over one million children are set to resume in-person education on January 3 in New York City — the epicenter of the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in the USA — as part of a nationwide reopening after the holiday break.

The warehousing of children in overcrowded classrooms in antiquated and poorly ventilated buildings is a recipe for mass infection. But the continuation of in-person education is a central aim of the Biden administration, and the White House has made clear that it will not close schools, no matter what the danger posed to children.

To support this action — driven not by public health but by the need for corporations to have children in schools so their parents can return to work — the Biden administration and its top official scientists are openly and flagrantly lying to the public.

According to data from the CDC, for the week of December 22 to 28, a record average of 378 children under 18 years old were hospitalized each day with COVID-19, a 66 percent increase from the week before and higher than the peak of 342 per day reached in September during the Delta surge.

Sober words and a serious calling

Our capacity for social relationships is sorely tired,” Pope Francis said in his traditional Urbi et Orbi (To the City and the World) message at the Vatican.

There is a growing tendency to withdraw, to do it all by ourselves, to stop making an effort to encounter others and do things together,” the leader of the Catholic Church told the crowds gathered at St. Peter’s Square.

Speaking from the balcony overlooking the square, Francis urged people to work together to tackle the pandemic:

God-with-us, grant health to the infirm and inspire all men and women of good will to seek the best ways possible to overcome the current health crisis and its effects. Open hearts to ensure that necessary medical care – and vaccines in particular – are provided to those peoples who need them most. Repay those who generously devote themselves to caring for family members, the sick and the most vulnerable in our midst.

Wise words in the face of nonexistent international solidarity, insufficient compassion, and steadily diminishing social cohesion.

Media reported that vaccine deliveries, organized by the UN Covax program, surged in the final month of 2021, but with just 910 million doses shared through Covax in 2021, the program fell far short of the original target of 2 billion.

The show must go on

But US retail sales rose 8.5 percent during this year’s holiday shopping season from Nov. 1 to Dec. 24, powered by an 11 percent rise in online sales. While Omicron was able to upending holiday plans for tens of thousands of travelers, it didn’t do much damage to holiday shopping.

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Katie Singer writes:

Ask not for energy or goods that depend on international supply chains.

Ask not for solar power, wind power or battery electric storage (BESS). Ask not for e-vehicles (EVs) or smartphones. These can’t be manufactured without fossil fuels, extractions, deforestation, greenhouse gases, toxic waste and international supply chains. They can’t operate without backup from fossil fuels or battery power. They don’t biodegrade.

Don’t just ask about greenhouse gas emissions during a product’s operation. Ask about energy and water consumption, extractions and chemical waste, worker hazards and ecological harm during manufacturing of devices and infrastructure.

Ask not for marketers’ sales pitches.

Ask not how to continue your current lifestyle.

Ask how much water fabs use to manufacture silicon for solar panels and transistors. Ask why silicon smelters use Tar Sands’ petcoke. Ask about solar panels’ perfluorinated chemical coating (PFAs) – and how to remove PFAs from soil.

Ask why countries where corporations extract ores for “renewables,” smartphones and EVs score “unsustainable” on the UN’s index while countries that buy these goods score “sustainable.”

Ask about the fire hazards of EVs, solar PVs, BESS and wind turbines. Ask for due diligent evaluations that mitigate hazards from licensed professional engineers.

Ask how electromagnetic radiation exposure from EVs and other electronics impacts children and people with medical implants. Ask how wind turbines impact wildlife and public health… during manufacturing and operation.

Ask how to reduce energy consumption by 40 percent, asap.

Ask how to build an economy based on neighbor-to-neighbor relationships and local raw materials.

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Links are on Blogger http://mato48.blogspot.com/2022/01/news-observations-and-guesses-january.html

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