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Coronavirus could drive the last nail into the mink fur trade

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Coronavirus could drive the last nail into the mink fur trade


A total 3.1 million mink were farmed in the United States in 2018, according to animal welfare charity Humane Society International (HSI). Current advice from the US Department of Agriculture does not recommend culls of mink herds.

In July, Spanish authorities ordered a cull of nearly 100,000 of the animals for the same reason, and in May the Netherlands mandated coronavirus testing at mink farms after suspecting that one of the animals had passed the virus to a human.

The testing has led to the culling of an estimated 2.6 million mink in the Netherlands, according to HSI. While some mink died from coronavirus, most of the animals were culled due to concerns that they could spread the virus to humans.

Although fur farms are banned in many countries, millions of animals are killed every year for their pelts, which are used in clothing. HSI said that 60 million mink were farmed for fur around the world in 2018, with China accounting for 20.7 million of the total.

A recent study conducted in the Netherlands found “strong evidence” that at least two people from four mink farms in the country contracted coronavirus from the animals, and study co-author Marion Koopmans, a virologist at ErasmusMC in Rotterdam, said that her team’s research has confirmed mink-to-human transmission.

Studies have shown that ferrets are susceptible to coronavirus, so researchers in the Netherlands decided to look into the taxonomically similar mink during a routine animal testing program, said Koopmans.

“Researchers found that mink do transmit Covid-19 to each other more easily than other animals, Koopmans said. “It is amazing how easily this virus spreads in mink,” she said.

Long-term animal welfare issues give way to human concerns

Mink, which are closely related to weasels, otters and ferrets, appear to suffer similar Covid-19 symptoms to humans.

Difficulty breathing and crusting around the eyes are usually seen, but the virus progresses rapidly, and most infected mink are dead by the day after symptoms appear, according to Dean Taylor, state veterinarian for the US state of Utah.

Conditions at the farms mean the virus is able to rip through captive populations, said Jo Swabe, senior director of public affairs at HSI Europe. “The animals are being kept in small wire cages, there’s just rows and rows and rows of them,” she said. “The animals can’t escape each other.”

Mink are naturally solitary and semi-aquatic, and it’s impossible to provide for their welfare needs on farms, according to HSI, which campaigns for the closure of fur farms on ethical grounds.

In the Netherlands, there is now ongoing transmission between mink farms, as well as evidence that the virus has been circulating for some time at some facilities, said Koopmans.

There are a number of hypotheses as to how transmission occurs, including via workers, semi-wild cats or other wildlife. “We’re not really sure what happens,” said Koopmans. “There is a missing link.”

Koopmans has recommended culling mink populations to reduce the chance that farms become a permanently infected viral reservoir. She emphasized that she is not normally an advocate for mass animal culls but it’s the best approach to prevent sustained transmission among mink.

“That’s a risk that I think we should not be taking,” she said.

If this were allowed to happen, and human-human transmission were suppressed, the virus could be reseeded from mink farms, said Koopman, who added that it’s unclear whether the virus would change, with unknown consequences, if it were allowed to circulate in another species.

What next for the industry?

The European Commission has ruled out an European Union wide ban on fur animal farming in connection with Covid-19. But various national authorities have stepped in to mandate the culling of mink populations to prevent farms becoming a source of infection.

In Denmark, mink herds with confirmed or suspected infections will be culled, as will all farms within five miles of those facilities. The culling process will be handled by the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration and the Danish Emergency Management Agency, and mink breeders will receive compensation for the loss of their herd along with compensation for their operation losses.

10,000 mink are dead in Covid-19 outbreaks at US fur farms after virus believed spread by humans

“It is a difficult decision that the government has made, but we fully support it,” said Tage Pedersen, chairman of the Danish Mink Breeders Association. “In recent weeks, we have all experienced that more and more farms in North Jutland have been infected, and no one has been able to explain the increase. Human health must come first.”

The Netherlands is also paying compensation for infected mink pelts that can no longer be sold. In addition, the country has fast-tracked an existing plan to phase out fur farming. Every mink farm was due to shut down by 2024, but the deadline has been brought forward to March 2021, according to Dutch public broadcaster NOS.
Barrier tape cordons off buildings of a mink farm at Beek en Donk, eastern Netherlands, on April 26 after tests showed that animals had been infected with Covid-19.

Mink farmers will receive considerable compensation, which has stoked public opposition at a time of economic hardship for many, but the decision has accelerated the end for mink farming in the country and saved millions of animal lives, said Swabe.

Fur farming has been banned for years in countries such as the UK, Austria and Croatia, with other European nations following suit.

France announced last month that it would ban farming mink for fur by 2025. Poland looks likely to ban the breeding of animals for fur after a bill introduced by the ruling Law and Justice party sailed through the lower house of parliament in mid-September.

Spain orders cull of nearly 100,000 farmed mink after animals test positive for Covid-19
The pandemic struck at an already difficult time for the fur industry, as fashion designers use less of the material. Calvin Klein was one of the first major designers to ban the use of fur in the 1990s, and it has since been joined by a raft of big brands including Prada, Chanel, Burberry and Versace, according to research conducted by HSI, as consumers increasingly turn away from the product on animal welfare grounds. Pelt prices have also declined in recent years, and many are going unsold, said Swabe.
While the fur industry faces tough times, in general, Swabe predicts that Denmark will be the last holdout. The country is the world’s largest producer of mink skins, almost 19 million per year, according to the Danish Agriculture and Food Council. It is home to Kopenhagen Fur, the largest fur auction house in the world.

However, in other fur-producing nations the compensation deals on offer may prove to be a good way out for those involved in the industry, while the effects of the coronavirus pandemic may drive farms out of business even before the recent spate of legislation comes into force.

“I really do hope that will put the final nail in the coffin,” said Swabe.



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European leaders face off against regions as a second wave engulfs continent

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European leaders face off against regions as a second wave engulfs continent


Cities in the UK, France, Spain are resisting centralized efforts to impose tighter regulations, with days of tense negotiations ongoing as infections increase.

In the northern English city of Manchester, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has become engulfed in a row with local mayor Andy Burnham over whether to move the city from the UK’s second tier of restrictions to its most severe third tier.

“If an agreement cannot be reached, I will need to intervene in order to protect Manchester’s hospitals and save the lives of Manchester’s residents,” Johnson said on Friday, urging Burnham to “reconsider his position” and “engage constructively” with the government.

But Burnham has resisted the government’s efforts to increase the severity of his city’s measures, urging for more financial measures to protect the region’s workers placed under stricter rules.

The row escalated on Sunday as Michael Gove, a member of Johnson’s Cabinet, called on Burnham “to put aside for a moment some of the political positioning that they’ve indulged in.”

“I want them to work with us in order to ensure that we save lives and protect the NHS … instead of press conferences and posturing what we need is action to save people’s lives,” Gove told Sky News, as negotiations between the two teams continued.

The tension is a far cry from the UK’s first coronavirus peak, when its four nations all essentially went into lockdown in unison, and adherence from regional authorities and the public was a given.

Instead, there is confusion in some parts of the country about what rules they are required to adhere to, with much depending on their local authority’s willingness to follow the government’s instructions.

In London, the mayor Sadiq Khan was calling for tougher rules for several days before Johnson announced them, while in Liverpool, Lancashire and other regions, deals were agreed with the government just before the weekend, with some councilors expressing misgivings about the order.

But even where local leaders are amenable to tougher rules, the public appears less so.

“I’m fed up,” Rebecca Duncan, a 39-year-old from south London, told CNN on Friday after the city moved into “tier 2.” “It’s like one thing starts to open up and life starts to seem slightly normal and then something else comes along and pushes us all back.”

And a similar scenario is unfolding across Europe, as leaders grapple with the difficulties of pursuing a “whack-a-mole” approach to slowing the spread of Covid-19.

Earlier this month a Madrid court rejected lockdown laws imposed on the capital by the Spanish government, leaving millions of residents wondering whether they were clear to travel for a national holiday.

The court said the restrictions, which banned residents from leaving the capital and nine suburbs last Friday, interfered with “citizens’ fundamental rights without the legal mandate.”

Spain’s left-wing national government and Madrid’s center-right regional administration have long been at loggerheads over the pandemic response, and the lockdown measures are the latest political battleground.

And in Germany, a slew of court orders are causing trouble for Angela Merkel’s government as she attempts to battle a rising load of cases.

Tourists walk at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Tuesday, as the city's businesses fight curfew orders in the courts.

Most prominently, a Berlin court sided against the government and with a group of business owners on Friday, suspending late-night curfews on bars and restaurants in the city.

“It was not apparent” that closing food and drink establishments between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. would help fight contagion, the court found in the case. The measure, which came in force on October 10, was therefore a “disproportionate encroachment on the freedom” of the hospitality industry, the court said.

Health Minister Jens Spahn said he was “very disappointed” at the ruling, saying that “there is no doubt that in big cities … especially in the late hours, what is happening in private and public places is a driver of current infections,” according to AFP.

Emmanuel Macron will be closely watching the arguments taking place across Europe, after imposing curfews in Paris and several other French cities that took effect on Friday. As of yet, the French government has not faced major opposition to the plan.

European nations smash Covid-19 records as WHO warns daily deaths could surpass April peak

In addition to opposition from local lawmakers and aggrieved business owners, the question of policing is causing confusion in some areas.

The Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police responded firmly on Saturday to a report in the Telegraph newspaper, which had claimed there were “fears” over whether officers would follow Burnham’s lead and refuse to put in place measures mandated by Johnson’s government.

“We carry out operational policing without fear or favour and in line with the Police Services code of ethics alongside colleagues across the country,” Ian Hopkins said in a statement.

But the barrage of challenges from councils and the hospitality industry are causing headaches for several European governments.

Meanwhile, cases continue to rise across the continent. The UK, Germany, Italy, Poland and the Czech Republic, alongside other nations, have all recorded their highest-ever confirmed Covid 19 infections in October, as leaders warn of potentially severe winter outbreaks.



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National elections loom after a brutal year for Bolivia

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National elections loom after a brutal year for Bolivia


Now, after multiple postponements, Bolivians will finally vote Sunday to choose a new president, vice president, and Legislative Assembly.

It is a contest that many hoped would have laid last year’s recriminations to rest, but in reality, could further divide an already splintered country.

In the crowded race for president, two men lead the pack — frontrunner Luis Arce, a socialist former finance minister, and the more centrist former President Carlos Mesa.

Whoever wins will inherit debilitating protests, a beleaguered public health system, and an economy mired in recession.

Let’s take a look at how we got to this point and what might happen next.

Election chaos

When Bolivians went to the polls in October 2019, few were prepared for the bloodshed that would follow.

It was clear the contest would come down to two candidates: long-time incumbent President Evo Morales and former President Carlos Mesa.

Morales, the country’s larger-than-life, first indigenous president, had been credited for a years-long effort to lower poverty and grow the economy, spearheading a campaign to nationalize certain industries that delivered positive results.

But criticism grew as his third term ended; Morales was increasingly the target of corruption allegations and was only able to run again in 2019 after a controversial Supreme Court decision eliminated term limits.

Mesa himself has never actually been elected president. In 2003, he was serving as vice president when then President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada resigned following massive protests.

Mesa took over and lasted less than two years before also resigning amid protests. In his 2019 bid to return to the highest office, the former journalist sought to appeal to the center of a polarized electorate.

Preliminary results were released the evening of October 20, showing Morales with a slight lead over Mesa, but not enough to avoid a runoff election under Bolivian elections rules: Candidates need 50% of the vote, or at least 40% and a 10-point lead, to avoid a second round of voting.

Morales didn’t appear to have either, at first.

But that night, the vote count unexpectedly halted. When it resumed about 24 hours later, Morales’ modest lead surged, putting him across the threshold to avoid a runoff. He claimed victory a few days later, but Mesa refused to concede, citing a flawed vote count. Many decried the election results as fraudulent.

Bolivian presidential candidates pictured during a debate. From left to right: Luis Fernando Camacho, Maria Baya, Luis Arce, Chi Hyun Chung, Feliciano Mamani, Jorge Tuto Quiroga of and Carlos Mesa.

An Organization of American States (OAS) election audit released a few weeks later claimed there was “intentional manipulation” and “serious irregularities” in the vote count. The audit would soon come under severe scrutiny, but its effect was immediate.

The influential hemispheric body said it wouldn’t certify the results of the election, further fueling critics’ demand for Morales to step down.

Protests broke out across the country both for and against Morales and would continue for weeks. Dozens would eventually die in the ensuing violence.
Amid public pressure and a call from the commander of the country’s military forces to step down, Morales fled Bolivia. He remains in exile.

The fall-out

Amid the post-election chaos and Morales’ departure, right-wing opposition lawmaker Jeanine Añez declared herself interim president in November 2019, despite the absence of a legislative quorum to appoint her.

She promised swift new elections, but a year later, those elections are only just now happening after a series of broken promises.

Despite first offering to hold elections within 90 days of ascending to power, Añez scheduled them for May, more than two months later than her initial offer. Then, soon after Bolivia announced its first confirmed case of the coronavirus March 10, the elections were put on indefinite hold.

Añez cited public health concerns for the delay but it set the stage for further tensions with critics who say her administration has cracked down on political opponents, botched its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and clung improperly to power.

Shortly after taking office, the Añez administration was swiftly accused of brutally suppressing protesters and of racism against indigenous groups who overwhelmingly support the Movement for Socialism (MAS), the party once led by former President Evo Morales.

Harvard’s International Human Rights Clinic said in a late 2019 report that, “…restrictions on free speech, and arbitrary detentions have all contributed to a climate of fear and misinformation” under Añez.

And the OAS audit that helped push Morales out of power has since repeatedly been called into question. The Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning US think tank, released a lengthy report claiming OAS’ claims of electoral fraud were unfounded and detrimental, saying, “…the OAS opted for a political intervention over a technical intervention.”

A group of two dozen US lawmakers led by Senator Bernie Sanders also sent a recent letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for a review of the OAS regarding “…its actions last November that contributed to a major deterioration of human rights and democracy in Bolivia.”

OAS has fiercely defended its election audit, including issuing a 3,200-word press release in June responding to its critics in detail. According to the statement, “the evidence collected leaves no room for doubt about the electoral fraud perpetrated.”

Throughout Añez’s tumultuous reign, Bolivia’s response to the coronavirus has at best been piecemeal and at worst, disastrous.

The country has one of the highest coronavirus death rates per 100,000 people in the world, trailing only two other major countries. Añez herself contracted the virus, along with roughly a dozen members of her senior cabinet.

Her health minister was arrested in May on suspicion of corruption involving the purchase of ventilators.

Over the summer, the country’s legislature even passed legislation that would allow people to ingest chlorine dioxide as a coronavirus treatment — a toxic cleaning agent Bolivia’s own health ministry says can have life threatening effects.

The calamitous series of events have sparked protest after protest against the government.

When Añez again postponed the national vote from September 6 to this weekend, thousands of protesters set up dozens of roadblocks, crippling cities like La Paz.

But with ballots being cast this weekend, the country may finally be at an inflection point.

The elections have arrived

Once again, former president Carlos Mesa is facing off against a member of the MAS party: Luis Arce, Morales’ former finance minister and handpicked successor. A number of other candidates are likely to garner small shares of the vote, but it is basically a two-man race. Añez herself dropped out of the race a few weeks ago, saying she hoped to help consolidate voters against Arce.

Lawmakers push toxic disinfectant as Covid-19 treatment in Bolivia, against Health Ministry's warnings

Though polling has consistently positioned Arce as the frontrunner, at this point it’s unclear if he has enough votes to avoid a runoff. If Arce fails to cross the threshold, a second round of voting provisionally slated for November 29 would surely add to existing tensions. All sides are on high alert for any signs of fraud.

Should voters identify any such signs, or should one or more candidates declare the results of the election invalid, it could set off a protracted post-election fight and do long-term damage to the perceived legitimacy of Bolivia’s democratic institutions.

Whatever the outcome, protests are widely expected. The US Embassy in La Paz recently issued a security alert warning its citizens of the potential for violence, and shortages of groceries and gas. In the long-term, the next president will face a fiercely partisan mood in the country and a potentially divided government.

Fueling any unrest will be ongoing economic pain. Unemployment has spiked since the pandemic began, the International Monetary Fund is predicting a nearly 8% drop in GDP this year, and last month, US credit ratings agency Moody’s downgraded Bolivia’s standing.

Put another way, disputes over the election’s outcome might only be the beginning of the next president’s problems. Bolivia’s myriad troubles almost assuredly will not be limited to just the past year.



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New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern wins second term in landslide election victory

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New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern wins second term in landslide election victory


Preliminary results show that Ardern’s center-left Labour Party has won 49% of the vote, meaning her party looks likely to score the highest result that any party has achieved since the current political system was introduced in 1996.

That result means her party is projected to win 64 out of 120 parliamentary seats, making it the first party to be able to govern alone under the current system. Coalitions are the norm in New Zealand, where no single party has won a majority of votes in the last 24 years.

“Tonight, New Zealand has shown the Labour Party its greatest support in at least 50 years,” Ardern said in a powerful victory speech on Saturday night where she referred to the difficult times ahead for New Zealand. “And I can promise you: we will be a party that governs for every New Zealander.”

Labour’s main opposition, the center-right National Party, won nearly 27% of the vote giving it 35 seats — down on last election’s 44% and the party’s worst result since 2002.
National leader Judith Collins said she called Ardern to concede defeat and congratulate her on an “outstanding result” for the Labour Party.

Final results will be released in three weeks once special votes — including those cast by New Zealanders living overseas — are counted. Those results could affect the final allocation of seats in parliament.

The preliminary count also shows a major swing to the left, with Labour picking up a significant boost on last election’s 37%, while its current coalition partner the Green Party won 8% — or 10 seats — up on last election’s 6%.

Ahead of the election, Victoria University politics lecturer Claire Timperley said Labour would be “foolish” not to have a conversation with the Greens about working together, even if Labour won an outright majority.

Labour’s other current coalition partner New Zealand First has not secured enough votes to make it back into parliament, while the right-wing ACT party won 10 seats with 8% of the vote, up on last election’s 0.5%.

Ardern’s reelection was buoyed by her “go hard and go early” approach to handling the coronavirus which has helped New Zealand avoid the devastating outbreaks seen elsewhere. The country was one of the first to close its borders, and Ardern announced a nationwide lockdown in March when it only had 102 cases.

New Zealand has reported fewer than 2,000 total cases and 25 deaths since the pandemic began.

At the start of the year, polls suggested National and Labour could be in for a tight election. Ardern had huge international popularity, but back home some were disappointed by her lack of progress on key promises, including on addressing the overheated housing market.

But that all changed during the pandemic. Support for Ardern soared, even as New Zealand posted its largest quarterly economic decline on record and a second outbreak in the country’s largest city, Auckland, prompted the PM to delay the election by a month.
National’s Collins — the party’s third leader this year — pitched her pro-business party as better placed to handle the pandemic’s economic fallout, but struggled to gain ground against one of New Zealand’s most popular leaders ever.

“We always knew it was going to be tough, didn’t we?” Collins said during her concession speech on Saturday. “We will take time to reflect, and we will review, and we will change. National will reemerge from this loss a stronger, more disciplined and more connected party.

“I say to everybody: we will be back.”

Record early turn out

As of Friday, just shy of 2 million people — or 57% of all enrolled voters — had already cast their ballot in advance at polling booths around the country, including Collins and Ardern.
Labour Leader Jacinda Ardern arrives with scones as she visits Labour Election Day volunteers in Auckland on October 17, 2020.

Lara Greaves, a New Zealand politics lecturer at the University of Auckland, said the high level of advance voting may have been related to Covid-19 — voters wanted to avoid lines and the possibility that a fresh Covid-19 outbreak could impact their ability to vote on the day.

She said the turnout could also have been given a boost by two referendums running alongside the election — one on legalizing euthanasia, and another on legalizing the recreational use of cannabis. The preliminary results of those will be released at the end of this month.

What to expect from a second Ardern term

When Ardern became Prime Minister at 2017 at the age of 37, she was New Zealand’s third female leader and one of the youngest leaders in the world. Within a year, she had given birth in office — only the second world leader ever to do so.
She also won praise for her empathetic handling of major crises. After the 2019 terror attack on two Christchurch mosques which left 51 people dead, she introduced swift gun law changes and donned a hijab when she met with the local Muslim community.
After White Island, an active volcanic island frequented by tourists, erupted last December, killing 21, Ardern was once again quickly on the ground, hugging first responders.
But while she promised to lead a government of “transformation,” her critics argue she hasn’t done enough to address inequality, child poverty, climate change and the housing market.

Ardern looks set to face another tough term ahead, as she attempts to address those issues while steering the country through the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. But political analysts aren’t expecting flashy flagship policies — instead, they predict Ardern will continue making incremental changes.

“Real change requires steps that bring people with us,” Ardern said at the country’s final election debate on Thursday. “I stand by my record … I am not done yet.”



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UK’s ‘special relationship’ with the US is more fragile than ever. Just when Boris Johnson is banking on it

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UK's 'special relationship' with the US is more fragile than ever. Just when Boris Johnson is banking on it


It stands to reason that the UK would turn to its most important single ally for support during this period; the presidential term of whoever wins on November 3 expires at roughly the same time Britons are expected to next go to the polls in 2024.

This means that either Donald Trump or Joe Biden will play a big part in influencing the UK’s Brexit policy before the end of the year. They will likely do the same for all British foreign policy after their inauguration.

When Churchill used the words “special relationship” he did so on American soil alongside his friend, President Harry Truman. World War II ended the previous year, but Europe was still extremely fragile. An aggressive Soviet Russia was making clear its intentions to increase control in Central and Eastern Europe, while promoting alternative political ideologies in the Far East. And while the Nazis had been defeated, many fascist groups and parties remained powerful across the continent.

The solution? “Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organization will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples. This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States,” said Churchill. Such an alliance involved, he explained, the “continuance of the intimate relationship between our military advisers, leading to common study of potential dangers,” as well as “the interchange of officers and cadets at technical colleges.”

Sure enough, the two nations have since cooperated on a wide range of security, economic, cultural and diplomatic matters. During the Cold War, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan stood shoulder to shoulder in opposition of the Soviet Union, celebrating free-market capitalism and Western democracy. Perhaps the strongest sign of their partnership was that Thatcher was the only foreign leader to speak at Reagan’s funeral in 2004.

After the September 2001 attacks, Tony Blair was by far the staunchest international supporter of President George W. Bush and one of the few European leaders to follow America into Iraq.

Beyond political leaders, the two countries together formed the foundations of NATO and the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network, institutions that have stood the test of time, whoever happens to be in charge of either government.

“There’s no doubt Blair and Bush had a partnership that was unrivaled during the Iraq war. That same is true for Thatcher and Reagan during the Cold War,” says Malcom Rifkind, a former British foreign secretary. And even though “it doesn’t happen with every prime minister and every president,” Rifkind acknowledges, “the intimate institutional relationship on security and a broad range of international issues has stuck.”

However, the question many British politicians are wondering is, outside of security, how much can they rely on the US to protect the UK’s interests in a post-Brexit world? In other words, how special is the relationship really?

Of particular interest is the current row over Johnson’s plan to override part of the Brexit deal he signed with the European Union, called the Northern Ireland Protocol. Critics say Johnson’s plan risks a hard border on the island of Ireland — between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state — and breaks the 1998 Good Friday Agreement brokered by then-US President Bill Clinton. That deal brought an end to decades of sectarian violence and found a way for both Unionists and Republicans to work together in governing Northern Ireland.

Ministers of his own government have admitted it would break international law. And unfortunately for Johnson, the Irish-American lobby carries a lot of sway in Washington DC.

“I don’t think the British public understands the reservoir of public support for Ireland in America. Growing up in America, I went to plenty of St. Patrick’s Day parades, but nothing for St George’s Day,” says Thomas Scotto, Professor of Political Science at the University of Glasgow. “Britain certainly has a kinship with the US, but it remains unforeseen what happens if the US is forced to choose between Ireland and Britain.”

Queen Elizabeth II  and  Donald Trump inspect the guard of honour formed of the Coldstream Guards during a welcome ceremony at Windsor Castle in Windsor on July 13, 2018

We might find out soon. In recent weeks, Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, among others, have reminded the UK that breaking the Good Friday Agreement would likely mean no trade deal with the US.

“While Ireland has been good at leveraging its diplomatic power, this recent public backing of the Good Friday Agreement has mostly been driven by American politicians,” says Jennifer Cassidy, an Irish academic and diplomatic scholar at Oxford University. “I would certainly say it gives the Irish confidence that should a hard border come into place, the world’s biggest power will be a true ally at what will be a horrible time.”

The issue of who America would back extends beyond the Irish Question and is arguably the biggest head scratcher for Johnson as he plots Britain’s future. And perhaps the biggest unknown is exactly what a re-elected Trump would do.

We know that the President supports Brexit and dislikes the European Union. We also know that he likes to give the impression that he and Johnson have a close relationship, repeatedly calling him his friend. In a long list of comparisons that are made of the pair, fairly or unfairly, they are the only two world leaders to have been hospitalized by coronavirus.

If he wins reelection in November, it is possible that Trump would see a strategic advantage in closer relations with the UK in a way that would undermine the EU. This, in turn, could lead to a beneficial economic relationship for the UK.

However much of a boon this could be for Johnson, it carries risk. “Trump is not a popular figure outside the US. In our latest polling 61% of Brits thought Trump has been a terrible president. Just about 8% said he has been good or great,” says Chris Curtis, Political Research Manager at pollster YouGov.

Pedestrians walk past as a giant balloon depicting US President Donald Trump as an orange baby floats next to the towers of Westminster Abbey during a demonstration against Trump's visit to the UK in Parliament Square in London on July 13, 2018.

And even if Johnson took the view that the British public could overlook Trump’s toxicity if he propped up the country post-Brexit, there is scant evidence that this would win over voters. “Brits already think we have a very close relationship with America and only 21% want to see it get closer,” says Curtis. “If given a choice, our research shows Brits would prefer to have a closer relationship with Europe.”

Johnson might already know this. Rifkind believes that if Trump were to make overtures to Britain, “Johnson is at least smart enough to know that being chums with Trump is not something that helps him with the British public.” And that’s a public that Johnson, or his Conservative successor, will have to face in 2024.

In fairness to Johnson, he has not shown much appetite for deferring to Trump. He has on more than one occasion sided with his European allies Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron on several international issues, including Iran. He also declined to meet with Trump during the 2019 Conservative leadership contest, after his team decided it would do more damage than good.

Less of a mystery is what position Biden would take on both Northern Ireland and Brexit as a whole. We know that he opposes the UK breaching the Northern Ireland Protocol and we know that a President Biden would seek a return to multilateralism.

If Johnson wanted to join Biden in restoring this sort of order to the world, it would not be unpopular with large parts of the British public. “Research shows that the British public is more supportive of Democratic US presidents,” says Scotto. “There is a small percentage of hard Brexiteers that support Trump and his nationalist agenda and they may have some sway within the Conservative Party, but overall it is a marginal group.”

Unfortunately for Johnson, some of those voices are supporters of his Conservative Party and people who voted for him in December, when he ran an election campaign on a promise to “Get Brexit Done.” And however marginal their views might be among the public at large, the British political system makes it very hard for a leader to govern without the broad and full support of their own party.

Now, the Prime Minister has, somewhat inexplicably, decided to reopen the Brexit debate, with his supporters pressing for a tougher stance.

Which brings us to a paradox. A hard Brexit gives the UK the most freedom to deal with global partners, yet the hardest of Brexits potentially nixes the UK’s ability to deal with its most important partner of all, at least in the case of a Biden presidency.

Worse for Johnson, some believe that even in the case of a Trump victory, the special relationship might not really be special enough for Trump to prop him up.

“I never grew up thinking there was a special relationship, neither did my parents. All we knew about the UK was the Queen and an awful comedian called Benny Hill,” says Scott Lucas, Professor of American Studies at the University of Birmingham. “Sure, you have the security relationship and the relationship between institutions. But it’s not a relationship of equals. The US of course wants a good relationship with the UK, but it also wants one with Japan, Germany or Israel. Britain is not necessarily the first port of call with the US, let alone the American public.”

Brexit is back and the stakes are higher than ever

As was pointed out many times during the presidency of Barack Obama, if the US wants a line into what’s happening in Europe, it can very easily pick up the phone and call Germany, just as Trump managed to find common ground with French leader Emmanuel Macron early in his presidency.

Johnson was already facing a difficult autumn. Trade talks with Brussels are reaching their hottest point, just as the coronavirus is resurging. He is facing some minor but not insignificant rebellions within his party over his handling of both.

As the year draws to its end, Johnson would benefit from the support of his big brother across the pond. However, he cannot ask for that support until the votes are in — doing so could rock the boat with either of these radically different prospects. Which leaves the Prime Minister in a very uncomfortable holding pattern as he prepares for some of the hardest weeks he’s faced in an already hellish year.



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Music Mends Minds: A CNN Hero’s mission finds a new need during the pandemic

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Music Mends Minds: A CNN Hero's mission finds a new need during the pandemic

Studies show that for seniors, social isolation increases the risk of developing dementia by nearly 50%. For those already experiencing cognitive decline, it’s taking an even greater toll.

“Diagnoses of some form of neurodegenerative decline brings such isolation to the patient and the families,” said 2018 CNN Hero Carol Rosenstein. “Covid just makes this doubly difficult for our seniors to sustain their levels of wellness … We are going to see people deteriorating faster.”

Rosenstein’s husband, Irwin, has been battling Parkinson’s disease and dementia for more than a decade. In 2014, after witnessing how playing music helped him, Rosenstein started a band for Irwin and others with neurodegenerative diseases. They called themselves the 5th Dementia.

Since 2014, her nonprofit, Music Mends Minds, has created 20 bands that have improved the quality of life for more than 200 people.

And during the pandemic, Rosenstein believes their music is as important as ever.

Mounting scientific evidence shows that listening and playing music is beneficial for people with neurodegenerative diseases.

“Music is a language of the brain. It is a complex, auditory language and it stimulates the brain in many different ways. It stimulates feelings, thinking processes, the motor system,” said Dr. Michael Thaut, director of the Music and Health Science Research Collaboratory at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Thaut says musical engagement can reduce moments of confusion, disorientation or agitation. He equates memory to a network that can be unlocked by music.

“When a musical memory is triggered in people with memory disorders, they don’t just remember the song, they also usually remember some other autobiographical memories that are connected,” Thaut said. “They remember at least for a moment where they are and who they are. And that can lead to very good, important moments, sometimes very emotional scenes where there is a reconnect for a moment, a recognition.”

When Covid-19 hit, Rosenstein moved her organization’s programming online. Participants now meet virtually several times a week to play music together. Rosenstein says their work has been crucial.

“What the world needs now is music. Music is medicine for the mind,” she said. “We can bring such happiness and hope in this moment of relative despair.”

CNN’s Laura Klairmont spoke with Rosenstein about her current efforts. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

CNN: How has increased isolation during Covid-19 specifically impacted seniors, especially those with dementia?

Carol Rosenstein: We are guided by love and touch, and because of our quarantine situation, many of those living alone now are missing the human touch, the smile. Isolation is bringing a great additional stress to all of us.

I know living with my darling husband Irwin, who is end stage dementia now and Parkinson’s diagnosis of 14 years, routine is the operative word for him. So, we have a routine of what guides us through his day to keep him as content as possible. We are all creatures of routine, and the idea of routine for these people is so important.

This isolation is bringing with it a huge toll, but we can provide a great substitute that is going to hold us and keep us healthy and well during the next many months that we’re still going to be in quarantine. Our work is so vitally important because we are able to bring music as medicine for the mind to everybody. And we are continuing to see improvement of everybody.

CNN: How is your organization’s online programming providing connection for participants?

Rosenstein: We had to abandon in-person get-togethers and I was thinking, “How the heck are we going to survive on our important mission?” We meet (online) Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 1 to 2 pm. Our virtual sessions have about 30 to 35 people.

They can show up and we’ll be there to greet them, to love them, and to have so much fun that they’re going to have some moment of normalcy, which is going to tide them over to the next opportunity that we can all be together. It doesn’t matter where on the continuum you are. But if you’re able to connect to a platform on your computer or phone, on your tablet, you will be able to come alive with all of us and not feel isolated. I never anticipated that so many would find the courage and confidence to signal that they want to sing us a song.

The ability to connect (online) as an extended family, and to see the smiles and waves, it’s just joyful and healing. This is total therapy. We have many generations of families. And it’s so touching to see moms and daughters and grandchildren singing together, waving, blowing kisses. It’s what we are missing at this crazy and turbulent time. I’ve watched our people continue to sparkle. They’re finding their confidence, their self-worth. And it’s really shocked me that we still continue to see people improve using the power of music during our current circumstances.

CNN: Why is it so important for people to engage with seniors during this time, and what are some safe ways to do that?

Rosenstein: It’s critical for everyone to feel the love that we are missing in person. Bring some attention to them. Because that’s what they’re hanging on to while they’re on the continuum of decline. It’s just critical. Otherwise, we’re going to be running into a much bigger emotional, mental issue in our country and in the world.

To do this safely is imperative. Do drive-bys and kisses through windows. Reach out in safety to those around you who may just need to know that you are thinking of them. Keep your hearts open. Have compassion. If you’re living distances apart, use the internet to reach out and speak to loved ones so they are reassured that they are not alone. Or come and see what Music Mends Minds is doing.

This is a very, very difficult time and we’ve all got to be in this together. We’ve all got to stay connected in some way. And we’ve got to spread love to everybody.

Want to get involved? Check out the Music Mends Minds website and see how to help.



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Large trial shows little benefit for remdesivir, pandemic total tops 39 million

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Large trial shows little benefit for remdesivir, pandemic total tops 39 million


In the latest international pandemic developments, a closely watched large phase 3 trial of four treatments for COVID-19—including remdesivir—found little or no benefit for survival, and as new spikes accelerated in the United States and Europe, the global total topped 39 million cases.

The findings about remdesivir leave doctors uncertain on how to proceed, given that some countries, including the United States, have already granted the drug emergency use authorization. They also leave health authorities, including the World Health Organization (WHO), scrambling to review the latest data to update their treatment guidelines. The findings were published the same day the WHO prequalified remdesivir.

Remdesivir and other drugs showed little to no effect

The discouraging news on the COVID-19 treatments came from the 6-month-long multi-country Solidarity trial of repurposed antiviral drugs led by the WHO, and researchers published their initial findings late yesterday in the preprint server MedXriv. Scientists from 30 countries evaluated remdesivir, hydroxychloroquine, lopinavir, and interferon alone and in combination with lopinavir. None of the drugs showed a clear impact on mortality, need for a ventilator, or hospitalization duration.

At a media briefing today, the WHO’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said that after an early analysis the WHO discontinued the hydroxychloroquine arm of the trial in June, then a month later, announced that it stopped enrolling patients in the lopinavir-ritonavir part of the trial. And now, interim results show little or no effect for remdesivir or interferon at preventing death or shortening hospital stays. He added that full peer-reviewed results will be published soon in a leading scientific journal.

The Solidarity trial is still recruiting patients to assess other treatments, such as monoclonal antibodies and new antivirals, but currently, dexamethasone is the only treatment shown to be effective for severe COVID-19 infection.

Soumya Swaminathan, MD, the WHO’s chief scientist, said more than 5,000 patients were involved in the remdesivir arm of the randomized controlled trial, which is the gold standard for assessing effectiveness. She said the findings are consistent with recent findings from other similar but smaller trials, such as one published by scientists from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

She said the Solidarity trial findings for remdesivir are robust, with large numbers of patients and tight confidence intervals. Swaminathan noted that the NIH trial showed a benefit for patients who weren’t on oxygen, but that it is difficult to compare studies.

Next steps: meta-analysis, treatment guidance decisions

The next step is for health groups to examine all the evidence for remdesivir to come up with a meta-analysis, which could take a couple weeks, she said. Based on that information, the WHO and other groups will issue guidance about use of the drug.

In a statement yesterday, the drug’s maker, Gilead, said it was aware of the preprint findings for remdesivir and said the findings appear to be inconsistent with what it said are more robust findings from other randomized controlled trials. It raised concerns that the findings from the Solidarity trial have not gone through rigorous peer review to allow for constructive scientific discussion, especially given the limitations of the trial design.

Global total tops 38 million, partly fueled by Europe surge

Though India and the United States each added more than 60,000 cases to the global total over the past day, cases in Europe continue to surge in the continent’s second wave of activity.

But at today’s WHO media briefing, Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, the group’s technical lead for COVID-19, said the virus isn’t spreading everywhere equally. She said there are 37 hot spots in 13 countries and added that countries need to be able to look at their data to know where to target their interventions. Also, the countries are facing pressure on their hospitals and intensive care unit (ICU) capacity, a concerning development with the flu season approaching, Van Kerkhove said.

Many in the Northern Hemisphere are feeling a high sense of anxiety as virus levels rise, with the threat of stronger measures, she said. However, Van Kerkhove emphasized that there are many ways for people to live their lives safely by, for example, wearing masks, washing hands frequently, and avoiding some high-risk situations.

A handful of European countries reported record daily high cases today, including Russia with 15,150, with roughly one-third of them from Moscow, Reuters reported. Italy reported more than 10,000 cases, its highest number since the start of the pandemic. The Netherlands, Belgium, and the Czech Republic also reported daily highs.

In other international developments:

  • With 17,096 new cases, Argentina reported its biggest single day rise, Asian News International reported.
  • China said the source of a recent hospital outbreak in Qingdao was two dockworkers who had check-ups at the facility, one of whom developed symptoms later, Reuters reported, citing city health officials. In response to the outbreak, the city expects to wrap up testing of all 9 million residents today.
  • The global total today reached 39,126,111 cases today, and 1,101,007 people have died from their infections, according to the Johns Hopkins online tracker.





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News Scan for Oct 16, 2020

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COVID-19 Scan for May 08, 2020


US emergency sick leave act reduced COVID-19 cases, study finds

The emergency sick leave provision of the Mar 18 bipartisan Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) appears to have reduced the spread of the virus. A Health Affairs study yesterday found that states where workers could get up to 2 weeks of paid sick leave showed 417 fewer confirmed cases per day, or an average of 1 prevented case per day per 1,300 workers.

The lack of universal access to paid sick leave in the United States makes it an outlier among nations in Europe and the Americas. Twenty-seven percent of all US workers and more than half of food and accommodation industry workers are ineligible for paid sick leave. The emergency sick leave provision of the FFCRA is estimated to provide paid sick leave benefits to roughly half of the US workforce.

Previous studies of flu transmission showed higher rates of “presenteeism”—working sick with a contagious disease—among employees lacking paid sick leave. The study authors sought to evaluate whether FFCRA emergency sick-leave provisions reduced presenteeism and decreased the number of reported new COVID-19 cases in states where workers gained access to the benefit.

Using a variety of statistical models and controlling for state differences in testing and stay-at-home orders, the study authors found significant decreases in the number of reported new COVID-19 cases in states where workers gained paid sick leave as a result of FFCRA (376 to 495 fewer cases per day). The authors highlighted an average decrease of 56% in new cases per day, in line with previous studies showing a 40% reduction in influenza-like-illness with sick pay mandates.

“Although our findings suggest that the U.S. emergency sick leave provision was a highly effective policy tool to flatten the curve in the short-run, it only contains up to two weeks of paid sick leave and is set to expire at the end of 2020,” the study authors noted.

“If employees take their emergency sick leave as a precautionary measure or because they are quarantined for the standard time of two weeks, they obviously are unable to take paid sick leave again, which may force them to work sick and potentially spread the virus in the future,” the authors warned.
 Oct 15 Health Aff study

 

Rural residents, men, young people more mask-averse; mandates effective

A PLOS One study yesterday showed that gender, age, and location factor into voluntary mask-wearing, with females, older individuals, and urban or suburban residents more likely to comply. The study also demonstrated that mask mandates established in July and August brought mask-wearing to levels above 90% for all groups.

Masks have been shown to be effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19, but significant public resistance to mask-wearing exists. The observational study of 9,935 Wisconsin retail shoppers from June through August examined the demographics of mask wearers and resisters before and after the implementation of mask mandates.

In June, 41.5% of shoppers in grocery or big-box retail stores wore a mask, a figure less than half that demonstrated to significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19 (85%). Females wore masks more than males (45% versus 38%), and individuals older than age 65 were more likely to wear masks than middle-aged (ages 30 to 65) people (57% versus 41%) or younger (ages 2 to 30) people (37%).

The odds of observing someone in urban or suburban areas wearing a mask were around four times higher than in rural locations (urban odds ratio [OR], 3.847, 95% confidence interval [CI], 3.157 to 4.689; suburban OR, 4.124, 95% CI, 3.418 to 4.975).

Mask-wearing compliance increased from June to late July with the imposition of store mask mandates (93% compliance from Jul 22 to Jul 31). After the Aug 1 state mandate, researchers found mask-wearing compliance at 96% overall, with 2% of shoppers continuing to resist mask-wearing.

Higher rates of mask wearing among older people may reflect an awareness of the increased risk of severe COVID-19 in this group. The authors hypothesize that gender differences may reflect a perception of mask-wearing as a sign of fragility or weakness among some men, as suggested in previous studies. “In this case, public health messaging that focuses on aligning masks with masculinity would likely be beneficial to improve usage among males in the United States,” the authors noted.
Oct 15 PLOS One study

 

New polio cases in the Middle East and west Africa

Six countries—Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Mali, and Niger—confirmed 26 new polio cases in this week’s update from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. This marks an increase from last week, when 18 cases were reported across Afghanistan, Chad, and Burkina Faso. (The latter did report a circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 acute flaccid paralysis case this week).

In Asia, Afghanistan had 1 more wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1) case in Khost province, raising the country’s total for the year to 52 WPV1 cases, compared with last year’s 16. Pakistan confirmed 3 more WPV1 cases, with 1 in Balochistan province and 2 in Punjab province. The country now has 77 total WPV1 cases this year; in 2019, it had 72 WPV1 cases at this time and 147 cases overall.

In 2019, Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Mali all had no cases of polio, but this week’s report showed continued cases of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2). Ivory Coast had 4 new cVDPV2 cases, with 1 each in the provinces of Gbokle-Nawa-San-Pedro, Loh-Djiboua, Poro-Tchologo-Bagoue, and Tonkpi, raising the year’s total to 33. Guinea reported 11 cVDPV2 cases, which increased the year’s total by 61% to 29. Of the new cases, most are in Kankan (5) and N’zerekore (3) provinces. Mali had 4 new cases, with one each in Bamako and Mopti and 2 in Sikasso, making for 5 total in the year.

Also in Africa, Niger reported 3 new cases, with 1 each in the Dosso, Niamey, and Tahoua provinces. Compared with 1 cVDPV2 case last year, the country has had 7 thus far this year.
Oct 13 GEPI weekly report

 

CDC: Peach-linked Salmonella outbreak appears to be over

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said today that a Salmonella Enteritidis outbreak linked to fresh peaches appears to be over, with 23 more illnesses and 5 more affected states noted in its final update on the investigation.

The new cases bring the outbreak’s overall total to 101 illnesses and the number of affected states to 17. Twenty eight people were hospitalized, and no deaths were reported.

The CDC first reported the outbreak in the middle of August. Illness onsets ranged from Jun 29 to Aug 27. Canada also reported 57 related illnesses from two provinces.

Investigators said the outbreak was likely linked to loose and bagged peaches packed or supplied by Prima Wawona or Wawona Packing Co. and sold at multiple grocery stores. The company recalled the products on Aug 22, and they are now past their shelf life.
Oct 16 CDC final outbreak notice
Oct 15 Public Health Agency of Canada
update



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Lockdown or a drip feed of Covid restrictions? One path is better for the economy

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Lockdown or a drip feed of Covid restrictions? One path is better for the economy


The crisis, which hit Europe for the first time in early spring, is back — but this time around, many people feel that locking down society is too high a price to pay. Yet most medical and economic experts CNN spoke to agree that, in the long run, a short lockdown is better than a constant battle to contain the pandemic.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is one of those trying to avoid a second nationwide lockdown in England.

Senior scientific experts advised the United Kingdom leader to impose an immediate two-week national lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19 in September. Instead, on Monday, Johnson unveiled a limited system of coronavirus restrictions to be imposed locally, if needed, and once again encouraged those who can work from home to do so.

Robert Jenrick, the UK housing minister, told the BBC on Tuesday that Johnson’s government had “to balance protecting people’s lives,” with keeping people in education and employment.

As a result of its spring lockdown, the UK economy shrank by 20% in the second quarter, pushing it into the deepest recession of any major developed economy. Johnson is now under pressure from some members of his Cabinet to keep the economy open, even as winter looms and coronavirus cases rise.

But some experts believe that limited restrictions have little impact on the virus and hurt the economy more over time.

“The number one priority is getting control of the virus,” Andrew Goodwin, chief UK economist at advisory firm Oxford Economics, told CNN. “And the quickest, [most] aggressive, way you can do that is the best thing for the economy.

“The worst thing is to have this bubbling for a long time, that’s the most dangerous thing,” he said. “Ultimately the longer this goes on, the worse it is for the economy and for public finances.”

Goodwin said a short “circuit-breaker” lockdown, as recommended by the scientists advising the UK government, could cause GDP to contract by 2.5% in the fourth quarter of 2020.

“That would be a relatively small hit now, compared to what we had before, and it would be worth it — if it worked,” he said, adding: “Piecemeal solutions, delivered late, lead to real economic damage. And if you let the virus rip, people take their matters into their own hands. People stop getting into social contact situations.”

China shows what’s possible when lockdowns are combined with population tracking policies intended to contain the virus. The world’s second-largest economy locked down hard earlier this year, and the government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on stimulus efforts. It was the only major world power to avoid a recession this year.

But that success has proved difficult for other countries to replicate, especially in places where leaders do not wield the same level of control over their populations as Beijing.

Johnson’s approach in England is by no means unique. The Irish government last week rejected a call by health chiefs to reimpose a nationwide lockdown, despite a sharp surge in cases.

The country’s Prime Minister, Micheal Martin, instead tightened coronavirus restrictions across the country for three weeks, citing the need to protect companies from more damage.

“It is important to understand we are in a very different situation to last March,” Martin said on October 5. “Businesses are beginning to recover and vital public health services are still backlogged. Severe restrictions now would have a very damaging impact which those services and those businesses may not be able to recover from.”

But just across the border, Northern Ireland’s executive has taken a far more aggressive strategy. First Minister Arlene Foster announced on Wednesday that schools, pubs and restaurants would close for four weeks, in an effort to tackle spiking cases. The First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford told UK’s Sky news that the country was also considering a short national lockdown.

In France, many of those working in the hospitality industry fear a second lockdown may be on the way.

Such is the pressure from the sector that officials have allowed restaurants to stay open in Paris and reopen in the city of Marseille, despite both areas being zones of “maximum alert,” meaning Covid-19 case rates there are high. Bars and cafes remain closed in both cities.

“We need to stop thinking that there is an opposition between economy and public health,” Catherine Hill, a prominent French epidemiologist, told CNN.

“If we solve the coronavirus crisis, then we solve the economic crisis. In China, they controlled the epidemic and the economy returned. The aim is simple: To get rid of the virus, so that life gets back on track.”

French Prime Minister Jean Castex indicated this week that more restrictions were on the way. “We are taking measures based on the epidemic situation,” he told news channel France Info on October 12.

“No options are to be excluded considering the situation we see in our hospitals.”

Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics at King’s College London, said “a successful strategy to suppress the virus is the best thing for the economy” even if it means the government needs to borrow more to fund support for businesses and households.

“We have no problem borrowing the amount of money [needed],” Portes said. “There’s no affordability constraint. Being able to afford a second lockdown is simply not one of the top five economic problems facing the UK right now.”

Robert West, professor of health psychology at University College London, said a future national lockdown in the UK is likely regardless of ongoing worries about the shock it will deliver to the economy because cases are rising so quickly.

But he says the key is for the government to use the time spent in lockdown to improve systems that can help control the virus once the restrictions are lifted.

“It would be a complete waste of time if we locked down without developing a test and trace system,” he told CNN.

Fear sets in that Boris Johnson's Brexit government is ill equipped to handle a pandemic

The four nations of the UK do have test and trace systems but they have been criticized in recent months over perceived administrative errors, delays and backlogs. The government has defended the systems.

“Since it launched, NHS Test and Trace has contacted 700,000 people who may otherwise have unknowingly spread coronavirus and told them to isolate,” a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told CNN.

Lock down or not, the fate of the economy rests on the ability of governments to control the virus as winter approaches.

CNN’s Amy Cassidy contributed to this report.



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US surpasses 8 million COVID-19 cases

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US surpasses 8 million COVID-19 cases


The United States surpassed 8 million confirmed COVID-19 cases today since the beginning of the pandemic, as a new surge of infections in the Midwest and West brings daily case numbers back to levels not seen since the peak days of July and early August.

The US reported 63,610 new COVID-19 cases yesterday, with 820 new deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard. It’s the first time since Aug 1 that the nation has recorded more than 60,000 new infections in a single day. The overall number of new daily infections has been climbing since mid-September, and the national 7-day moving average of new cases is at 53,400.

The impact of the rise in new cases is reflected in the country’s hospitalization numbers. Data from the COVID Tracking Project show that 37,308 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, up from 28,608 on Sep 28. Throughout the pandemic, COVID-19 hospitalizations have typically started rising a few weeks after increases in new infections.

Among the states where hospitals are starting to feel the strain is Wisconsin, where COVID-19 hospitalizations yesterday hit an all-time high of 1,043, with 264 people in intensive care units (ICUs), according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. State health officials told the paper that ICUs across the state are more than 90% full, and hospitals in every region are reporting current or imminent staffing shortages.

Elsewhere in the country, Indiana health officials say COVID-19 hospitalizations have risen to their highest level since May, and the Kansas City Star reports that some Kansas City area hospitals are turning away ambulances with COVID-19 patients because their beds are already filled. Both Missouri and Kansas are seeing surges in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

“I’ve got to ask people to continue to do, or start doing, what we know it takes to mitigate the spread of this disease,” Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said at a press conference earlier this week.

Pfizer says it won’t seek vaccine authorization until November

Meanwhile, news today from drug maker Pfizer indicates that emergency authorization of a COVID-19 vaccine prior to election day—an idea that has been pushed repeatedly by President Donald Trump—is unlikely.

In a letter posted on the company’s website, Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla, DVM, said that, because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is requiring companies to provide 2 months of vaccine safety data on half of the phase 3 trial participants following final dose of the vaccine, the earliest the company could apply for emergency use authorization (EUA) is the third week of November.

Bourla, who has said in recent months that Pfizer will know by the end of October whether the vaccine is effective, said effectiveness would satisfy only one of the requirements of an EUA application. In addition to safety data, the company also has to show manufacturing data that demonstrate the quality and consistency of the vaccine that will be produced.

“So let me be clear, assuming positive data, Pfizer will apply for Emergency Use Authorization in the U.S. soon after the safety milestone is achieved in the third week of November,” Bourla said.

The vaccine from Pfizer and German biopharmaceutical company BioNTech is one of several in phase 3 trials, and has widely been viewed as having the potential to be the first COVID-19 vaccine to be granted an EUA or approved. The late-stage trials of vaccine candidates from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson are currently on hold due to adverse events among trial participants.

Although the FDA requirement that vaccine makers provide a median 2 months of follow-up data after completion of the full vaccine regimen received pushback from the White House, in early October FDA officials went ahead and included the requirement in guidance published on the FDA website. In an editorial published today in the New England Journal of Medicine, FDA officials defended their decision to require 2 months of data.

“From a safety perspective, a 2-month median follow-up (meaning that at least half of vaccine recipients in clinical trials have at least 2 months of follow-up) after completion of the full vaccination regimen will allow identification of potential adverse events that were not apparent in the immediate postvaccination period and will also provide greater confidence in their absence, if none are observed,” Philip Krause, MD, and Marion Gruber, PhD, of the FDA’s Office of Vaccine Research and Review, wrote.

Krause and Gruber said the 2 months of follow-up data could also provide more information on the duration of protection offered by a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Although 2 months of follow-up is insufficient to fully evaluate the duration of vaccine protection, substantial waning of protective responses might start to become apparent in the second month,” they wrote. “Thus, a median of 2 months is the shortest follow-up period required to achieve some confidence that any protection against Covid-19 is likely to be more than very short-lived.” 

While the country awaits news on a potential COVID-19 vaccine, state health officials are racing to submit plans to the federal government on how’ll they’ll distribute a vaccine once it’s approved, National Public Radio reports. The deadline for the first draft of those plans is today.

Also today, the Trump administration announced a deal with pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens to administer a future COVID-19 vaccine to seniors and staff in nursing homes free of charge, the Associated Press reported. Under the program, trained staff from CVS and Walgreens would deliver and administer the shots.

COVID-19 racial disparities persist

In other US developments:

  • Data released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report show that US blacks and Hispanics continue to be disproportionately represented in COVID-19–associated deaths. Analysis of 114,411 deaths recorded from May through August in 50 states and the district of Columbia found that 51.3% were among non-Hispanic whites, 24.2% were Hispanic or Latino, and 18.7% were non-Hispanic black. Hispanics represent 18.5% of the US population, while non-Hispanic blacks represent 12.5%.
  • Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin agreed to House Democrats’ demands to include a national coronavirus-testing strategy in a broader coronavirus relief package, according to the Wall Street Journal. But the aid package, which is approaching $2 trillion dollars, still faces opposition from Senate Republicans, many of whom think it’s too expensive.
  • Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was recently released from the hospital after spending 7 days in the ICU with COVID-19, said in a statement yesterday that Americans should take the coronavirus very seriously. “No one should be happy to get the virus and no one should be cavalier about being infected or infecting others,” he said. Christie also said he regretted not wearing a mask to the Sep 26 Rose Garden ceremony for Judge Amy Coney Barrett or several debate prep sessions with President Trump.



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