Inside Covid-19: More bad news for AstraZeneca; vaccine for dogs; #Covid in your eyes, ears; Twitter censorship

In this episode of the BizNews podcast dedicated to uncovering all the important news and views on the biggest public health crisis in living memory, we hear from Dr Simone Donati, who is among a team of ophthalmologists at Università dell’Insubria in Italy, about what medical experts have discovered on how the coronavirus goes easily undetected in normal Covid-19 tests by entering the human body through the eyes. We take an in-depth look at the latest developments on vaccine rollout in South Africa. This includes: an update on the government deals to secure jabs; and, from CEO Stephen Saad, how South Africa’s largest pharmaceuticals company, JSE-listed Aspen Pharmacare, has ramped up efforts to start rolling out J&J Covid-19 vaccines to South Africa and the rest of Africa within weeks. Later in the show, we share an update from Discovery Vitality about how novel measures to improve mental health as the pandemic takes its toll on our emotional wellbeing. Plus, the main Covid-19 news making world headlines this week – including more bad news for AstraZeneca. – Jackie Cameron

Inside Covid-19 headlines

  • The number of deaths worldwide from Covid-19 is heading towards 3m as governments report nearly 130m cases of the disease. That’s according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre which lists the US as the country hardest hit by the pandemic, with more than 30m cases and more than 550k deaths. Brazil has the world’s second highest death toll, at about 322,000, while Mexico has the third highest death rate at over 200,000. South Africa is number 15 on the list of countries with high death rates, with just under 53,000 deaths reported by the government.
  • South Africa’s government has bowed to pressure from religious groups and increased the number of those allowed to attend public gatherings, even as fears grow of an impending resurgence in coronavirus infections, reports Bloomberg. As many as 250 people can now attend indoor activities and 500 outdoors, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in an address to the nation on Tuesday night. The raised limit will be reviewed in 15 days, allowing festivals such as Easter and Passover to come and go under eased restrictions. The decision came after days of debate about how South Africa should address an upcoming holiday period that sees millions of people travel to see family and friends and attend religious ceremonies. While active Covid-19 case numbers have dropped dramatically since January, the country lags behind emerging-market peers in vaccinations, with only 240,000 health workers inoculated to date. That’s raised fears of a third wave of the pandemic. Despite imposing one of the strictest lockdowns worldwide a year ago, South Africa has been more hesitant to close business activity lately to allow the economy to recuperate. Ramaphosa did turn to one familiar weapon against the coronavirus: a ban on alcohol sales. But even that was limited to the four-day holiday weekend starting Friday and only applies to off-site sales. Restaurants, bars and similar establishments may still serve thirsty guests. In contrast, South Africa has previously imposed three total bans over the past year, lasting a combined 3 1/2 months. Rampahosa said that, despite some delays procuring vaccine supplies, the country has secured enough doses for two-thirds of the population of about 60 million people.
  • The American Institute for Economic Research says Twitter has crossed a new line by censoring Harvard Professor Martin Kulldorff, a co-creator of the Great Barrington Declaration. Professor Kulldorf is one of the most cited epidemiologists and infectious -disease experts in the world (latest count of citations: 25,290). His tweet on how not everyone needs a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 was not taken down. He had a warning slapped on it and users have been prevented from liking or retweeting the post that Dr. Kulldorff serves on the Covid-19 vaccine safety subgroup that the CDC, NIH, and FDA rely upon for technical expertise on this very subject. The Institute says “here we have some geeks at Twitter curating science, in areas totally outside the specialisation of web nerds, in a way that skews public understanding of the scientific debate. Dr. Kulldorff is not an anti-vaxxer (why should I have to say that?) but instead has a nuanced position in light of his professional understanding of the demographics of risk of this virus”.
  • The European Union’s drugs regulator said a link between AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine and a rare type of blood clot is possible, identifying at least 62 cases of the condition while insisting the shot’s benefits still outweigh its risks, reports Bloomberg. The comments further cloud the picture around the vaccine after Germany restricted it to older people this week amid growing concerns about side effects. That could slow Europe’s already lagging immunisation program as virus cases surge anew. The European Medicines Agency said its safety committee will probably issue an updated recommendation next week. If the panel concludes there’s a connection between the clots and Astra’s vaccine, the EMA will change its recommendations to patients and health-care officials, Executive Director Emer Cooke said. “At the moment, at this stage of our investigations, the link is possible, and we cannot say any more than that at this point,” Cooke said in a press conference. For now, there’s no evidence to support restricting use of the vaccine in any population of people, she said.
  • AstraZeneca’s vaccine, developed with the University of Oxford, is under mounting scrutiny and has faced dwindling support in Europe. Still, countries are counting on the shot to help them exit the pandemic, and millions of doses have been administered across the region. “The UK needs to be on high alert as it starts using the vaccine in younger people,” Sam Fazeli, an analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence, wrote in a report. Concerns surrounding the Astra shot have focused on an unusual type of blood clot known as cerebral venous sinus thrombosis. It’s associated with a low number of blood platelets and occurs most commonly in women between the ages of 30 and 45 – a group that, in the EU, has been disproportionately vaccinated with Astra’s shot, EMA officials said. In individuals under the age of 60, health authorities are seeing more cases of the rare clots in people who recently got the Astra vaccine than would be normally expected, said Peter Arlett, EMA’s head of pharmacovigilance and epidemiology. The agency has identified about one report per 100,000 people under the age of 60 who got the vaccine in the European economic area. It hasn’t yet been able to identify specific risk factors, however, such as age, gender or previous medical history of clotting disorders. The figure of 62 cases of the rare clots includes all side effects reported in the EMA’s EudraVigilance system, which includes cases both in and outside Europe, the agency said. The count dates to March 22, and additional cases have occurred since then. Looking beyond the rare clots, most of the adverse reactions reported in patients who had received Astra’s vaccine occurred in the UK, where it has been used most and where the government has defended the homegrown shot. A March 8 review identified 246 reactions involving various types of artery blockages or blood clots in Britain, including a range of conditions. That’s out of 269 instances in a dozen countries, which included about 40 deaths, the regulator said. Just because the reactions were reported after vaccination doesn’t mean they’re linked to the vaccine.
  • Austria’s national vaccination panel recommended the unrestricted use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, for the time being. The panel will discuss the recommendation again after the European Medicines Agency has reassessed data on any blood-clotting issues linked to the vaccine next week, it said in a statement.
  • Sweden’s Public Health Authority has decided to halt inoculations using AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine while the European Medicines Agency reviews possible side effects from the jab. “We are doing it out of precaution,” State Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said in a statement late March 31. Sweden was giving the AstraZeneca vaccine only to people 65 years old and older.
  • Russia has registered the world’s first vaccine against Covid-19 for animals, the country’s agriculture safety watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor said on Wednesday. Aljazeera reports that military officials in Russia’s second city Saint Petersburg announced earlier this week that army dogs would undergo mandatory vaccination before being deployed at airports and participating in nationwide World War II commemorations in May. Russia already has three coronavirus vaccines for humans, the most well known of which is Sputnik V, named after Sputnik, the world’s first satellite launched by the Soviet Union, says Aljazeera. The development of its shot would help prevent mutations in animals and cited Denmark’s decision to cull 15 million mink last year, after some were found to be carrying a mutated virus variant. “The use of the vaccine, according to Russian scientists, can prevent the development of virus mutations,” the watchdog said. It added that animal-breeding facilities and private companies from countries including Greece, Poland, Austria, the United States, Canada and Singapore had expressed interest in Carnivac-Cov.
  • Coronavirus could cause hearing loss and other auditory problems, new research suggests. The Telegraph says scientists have reported a strong association between the virus and subsequent trouble with both hearing and balancing. A review of 56 studies showed that the prevalence of hearing loss was 7.6 per cent, tinnitus 14.8 per cent and vertigo was 7.2 per cent. Although a causal link has not yet been proved, it is already known that other serious viruses can damage people’s hearing. The latest findings come from a year-long UK study into the auditory effects of patients who were hospitalised with Covid-19. Last October the BMJ documented the first reported case of sudden permanent hearing loss due to the new virus. It warned doctors to be alert to the potential side-effect, as permanent damage can sometimes be prevented with a course of steroids. Prof Kevin Munro, who led the study at the University of Manchester, said: “There is an urgent need for a carefully conducted clinical and diagnostic study to understand the long-term effects of Covid-19 on the auditory system. “It is also well-known that viruses such as measles, mumps and meningitis can cause hearing loss; little is understood about the auditory effects of the Sars-Cov-2 virus.” Sudden hearing loss is frequently seen by ear, nose and throat specialists, with around five to 160 cases per 100,000 people reported every year. It is not clear what the causes are, but the condition can follow a viral infection, such as flu, herpes, or cytomegalovirus. The new research is published in the International Journal of Audiology.
  • Several European countries have instituted new lockdown restrictions, while others are considering tightening their rules in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus as case numbers across the continent are surging once again, reports Bloomberg In France, a new partial lockdown took effect at midnight on Friday. Some 21 million people across 16 regions, including Paris, are affected by the new measures. The French government decided to take the step amid fears of a third wave. The new lockdown is less restrictive than previous ones. People will be allowed to exercise outdoors and schools will remain open. However, non-essential businesses have been forced to shut down, while others, such as hairdressers, can remain open if they follow strict guidelines.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron announced a nationwide four-week lockdown in France, shutting down schools and business. “We did everything we could to make these decisions as late as possible, until they became strictly necessary, which is now,” Macron warned in an address to the nation on Wednesday. “The virus is more contagious and deadlier.” He implored people to make an extra effort as the lockdown begins to come into force on Saturday. Restrictions will be flexible this weekend, during the Easter holidays, to allow people to relocate.
  • Discovery Vitality has launched Vitality mental wellbeing module and rewards. It says members can now track their mindful minutes and sleep goals on partner apps, including Headspace, Calm, The Mindfulness App and buddhify, in the Vitality Active Rewards platform. Members will be rewarded with Discovery Miles for taking proactive steps towards their mental health and wellbeing. Mental health concerns are a prevalent part of everyday life, affecting our thoughts and emotions as well as our health behaviours. Worldwide, more than one billion people are affected by mental or addictive disorders – around 16% of the world’s population. According to the South African Stress and Health (SASH) study, the lifetime prevalence for any mental disorder among South Africans was found to be 30%. Vitality Clinical Wellness Specialist and mental health expert Dr Seranne Motilal says:  “We have always been driven to educate and empower our members to prioritise mental wellbeing in managing overall health. In addition to these exciting new initiatives for our Vitality members, we have a number of resources available to all South Africans on the Vitality at Home site. These include mental wellbeing articles, podcasts and breathwork videos as well as home-workout videos and nutritious recipes.”

* This podcast is brought to you by Discovery.

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