Has the new coronavirus mutated to be more contagious? Experts weigh in

TORONTO — Scientists are cautioning that it’s still too early to know how the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) mutates, after a preliminary study in the U.S. claimed that a new strain of the virus has emerged that is more dominant and contagious than the original.

The preprint study by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico was published Tuesday on BioRxiv, a website for academics to share their research before it’s peer-reviewed.

In the paper, the scientists said they discovered a new strain of the coronavirus, which first appeared in Europe in February. Since then, the new strain migrated to the U.S. East Coast and other regions and has become the dominant form of the virus in the world, according to the researchers.

The study’s authors said this one particular mutation, named D614G, appears to be more contagious than its predecessors because it has quickly infected more people than earlier strains of the virus that first emerged in Wuhan, China.

The scientists came to this conclusion by analyzing more than 6,000 coronavirus sequences from around the world, which were collected by the German-based organization the Global Initiative for Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID).

They tracked the virus across different regions since its emergence and said they identified 14 mutations related to the now-infamous spike protein that is visible on the surface of the virus. They focused their attention on the spike protein because this is what allows the virus to enter human respiratory cells.

Of the mutations they discovered, the researchers said D614G appeared to be of the most concern because it became dominant wherever it was spread, although they said it’s still unclear why that is.

What’s more, the study didn’t show that the mutated strain of the virus actually made people sicker. The team studied data from 453 hospitalized patients in Sheffield, England and found that, while people with the particular mutation had higher viral loads in their samples, they weren’t sicker or in the hospital for longer periods.

“There was, however, no significant correlation found between D614G status and hospitalization status,” the study said.

While the academics didn’t suggest the mutated strain was more lethal than its predecessors, they did warn of a possible risk that coronavirus patients will be “susceptible to a second infection” if they believe they have immunity to the virus after being infected with only one strain of it.

The scientists said the newly discovered strain was of “urgent concern” as it could have important implications for vaccine development already underway if those scientists are not aware of its mutated form.


While the suggestion of a more virulent mutated strain of coronavirus might stoke fears, experts in the field say more evidence is needed to prove its existence.

Rob Kozak, a clinical microbiologist at Sunnybrook Hospital who helped isolate SARS-CoV-2 in March, said the fact that the virus is mutating is not a cause for alarm because all viruses mutate as part of their life cycles. He explained that when a virus makes contact with a host, it will make new copies of itself so it can go on to infect other cells.

“As the virus replicates, it makes mistakes in copying itself and some of these mistakes will accumulate over time,” he told CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview on Thursday. “It will replace one nucleic acid with another just by accident, so that the genome of the virus at the beginning of a flu season, for example, is going to be a little bit different from the one at the end.”

For the most part, mutations tend to be neutral and will have only a slight effect on how the virus functions. In some cases, mutations may actually weaken a virus and cause it to peter out.

On rare occasions, a mutation can benefit the virus and help it to proliferate, as the study suggests is happening with COVID-19.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician and scientist with the Toronto General Hospital, said the study didn’t prove that the mutated strain is more virulent just because it was more common in their sample size.

“It’s not to say it can’t happen. It’s not to say it won’t happen, but they don’t provide the level of proof to determine that this has happened,” he said.

“It’s not that a mutation didn’t occur. It’s not that there aren’t different variants of this virus around. But does this mutation confer some special advantage over other strains of this virus? And the answer is maybe, maybe not, but they don’t show that in this paper.”

Kozak said the researchers can’t prove that the mutation is associated with better transmission or more virulence until they start doing rigorous scientific experiments using animals and cell cultures.

“Mutations on their own don’t really mean anything until we actually do proper animal models and proper scientific experiments to understand it,” he said.

Kozak also said the study’s sample size of genomes comprised of only about one per cent of all the viruses out there from coronavirus, which has infected more than 3.8 million people globally.

“We’re not really getting a very fulsome picture of everything that’s there,” he said.

The microbiologist said the study also didn’t take into account epidemiological factors, such as how those with the virus isolated themselves or if they travelled extensively while they were infected.

“If a country really locked down, put in social distancing, insisted that businesses be shut down, you’d probably see there might be less transmission of a particular virus based on that,” he explained.

As for the study’s potential impact on vaccine development, the team from Los Alamos National Laboratory explained that was why they published the results of their research before it had been peer-reviewed.

“These findings have important implications for SARS-CoV-2 transmission, pathogenesis and immune interventions,” the authors wrote.

Bette Korber, a computational biologist and the study’s lead author, did not respond to a CTVNews.ca request for comment.

While Kozak agreed that sharing data is a good idea because it stimulates discussion and new ideas within the scientific community, he said it’s important to remember some of the study’s limitations and that it hasn’t undergone that proper peer-review process.

“It’s always a balance because you want to put information out there because maybe it’ll be helpful to people,” he said. “But it’s a risk when people don’t say ‘We got to take this with a grain of salt. We need to not jump to conclusions. We need more information before we can really make a conclusion.”


This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, NIAID-RML

Source from CTVNews.ca: Has the new coronavirus mutated to be more contagious? Experts weigh in, written by Jackie Dunham CTVNews.ca Writer


3 reasons the COVID-19 death rate is higher in U.S. than Canada

Politics, health care and the Big Apple contributed to early gap, but it’s narrowing

In an effort to counter the worst spread of COVID-19 in the U.S., authorities imposed a rare shutdown this week on New York City’s subway system as crews disinfected it. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

The nation next door has been a hot topic for Canadians during the coronavirus pandemic, with chatter frequently involving a certain politician who lives in a white Washington mansion.

The U.S. has a COVID-19 mortality rate about two times higher than that of Canada, with more than 200 deaths per million versus 100 per million in Canada.

CBC News consulted five infectious disease experts, academic studies and data collected by governments and companies to try to find out why.

The overwhelming opinion points to three main contributors: longstanding issues related to health care, politics and one particular city.

While every expert agreed the U.S. government flubbed its early response to the pandemic, most said the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump was just one element in the bigger story.

The gap in fatalities between the U.S. and Canada is not a methodological quirk attributable to different reporting methods, the experts said.

The U.S. had 1.2 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, and more than 71,000 deaths as of Tuesday night, and Canada had more than 63,000 cases and close to 4,300 deaths.

Death rates more reliable measure than cases

Mortality rates are considered a more accurate reflection of the rate of spread than case totals, which rely on inconsistent testing standards across jurisdictions.

“I think per capita deaths are a proxy for the extent of disease activity,” said Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto.

It’s important to see the U.S.-Canada disparity in a global context, she said: U.S. death rates are still far lower than those in Spain, Italy and Belgium.

Health-care workers at a mobile COVID-19 test clinic in the Montreal neighbourhood of Saint-Michel. Because testing is inconsistent across jurisdictions, some experts consider mortality rates a more reliable measure of the spread of coronavirus than the number of confirmed cases. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The difference in death rates between the U.S. and Canada could continue to change as the pandemic progresses. In fact, it has been steadily narrowing, according to data published each day by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control,

In March, Americans were dying from COVID-19 at a per-capita rate 3.6 times higher than that of Canadians. In the first half of April, it was 3.1 times. It was 1.7 times in the last half of April. In early May, death rates have been similar.

Cases in the U.S. have already had a direct effect on Canadians. In Ontario, for example, the U.S. was by far the largest source of early imported cases.

The gap in outcomes opened up in March, when the virus hit New York.

New York, New York

The U.S. was unfortunate that its most bustling city got struck early.

“How prepared that initial city or geographic area was will influence your death rate,” said Amesh Adalja, a pandemic preparedness fellow at Johns Hopkins University and Medicine in Baltimore.

Cities hit later benefited not only from being less crowded but from having more time to prepare, he said.

One study identified the New York City subway system as a major transmission vector. Outside New York City, the Canada-U.S. death rates are far closer. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)

Without the Big Apple, the Canada-U.S. gap looks very different. Nearly half the difference disappears. Move beyond the suburbs of New York, and the Canada-U.S. death rates are even closer.

In fact, the death rate from COVID-19 is nearly identical between Canada and the 47 U.S. states that do not include a New York City suburb, based on state- and county-level data compiled by the site Worldometer.

Such comparisons are statistically dicey, however, because excluding one sub-national region distorts a country’s demographics and urban-rural mix.

Outside New York City and the suburbs that sprawl into New Jersey and Connecticut, the Canada-U.S. death rates are far closer. (CBC News)

What’s beyond dispute is that New York was clobbered by COVID-19, and one of its defining attributes — crowding — played a role.

New York has no rival in Canada when it comes to population density, which epidemiologists identify as a contributing risk. It has twice the density of Vancouver, Canada’s most-crowded city.

Every weekday, 5.4 million people cram into New York’s subway system, pushing its metal turnstiles and filling its cars, with a rail ridership more than six times that of Toronto’s subway and streetcar system.

In early March, before many grasped the severity of the crisis, and before workplaces emptied out, infections rippled through the city, with the transit system a likely transmission vector.

An MIT researcher, Jeffrey Harris, described it in the title of a working paper, not yet peer-reviewed: “The subways seeded the massive coronavirus epidemic in New York.”

New York City was “a fire that could be easily ignited,” said John Brownstein, a Canadian-born epidemiologist at Harvard University and the Boston Children’s Hospital.

Health access and pre-existing conditions

It’s no secret underlying health conditions appear to make COVID-19 deadlier.

A report just released by the U.S. Centers For Disease Control found nearly three-quarters of those hospitalized in Georgia had pre-existing conditions believed to make COVID-19 more severe.

Hypertension was the most prevalent pre-existing health problem among people in the Georgia study: about 67.5 per cent had high blood pressure. Severe obesity was also on the list.

The U.S. has by far the highest obesity rate in the developed world and slightly higher rates of hypertension than Canada.

The Georgia study pointed to a wide racial disparity: 83 per cent of patients with coronavirus in hospitals it studied were African-American.

The CDC study is the latest indication of black Americans being hit harder than other population groups by COVID-19. (Comparable data for Canada is not yet available.)

WATCH | African Americans in Georgia have been hit disproportionately hard by the coronavirus:

Georgia’s black population has been the hardest hit by the COVID-19 outbreak and is putting a spotlight on health care and economic inequality in the state. 1:59

This hints at some gaps in the U.S. health-care system that predated the pandemic. There’s a persistent gap in access to care, for example, with visible minorities likelier to lack medical insurance.

Nearly 10 per cent of the American public lacked insurance before the pandemic, and that number is likely to grow as people lose jobs and employer-provided plans.

The U.S. government has promised to cover testing and treatment costs for the uninsured.

A U.S. Postal Service worker delivers mail from the New Jersey unemployment insurance office. With more people unemployed as a result of the pandemic, more will lose their work insurance plans. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

But anecdotes and analysis warn of people facing unexpected costs. In particular, minority groups and uninsured people must travel farther for tests, according to a paper Brownstein co-authored.

Minority groups, rural residents, homeless people and those struggling with mental health and addiction are less likely to receive care, according to Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious-disease expert at Stanford University.

“We are seeing high numbers in cities [and] areas where there are historically vulnerable populations,” Kuppalli said.

“These types of patients are very difficult to engage in health care and are the most vulnerable.”

Politics has an impact

Politics may have played a role in whether or not people practised physical distancing, some American studies suggest.

That’s consistent with several U.S. public-opinion polls showing a partisan gap in attitudes about the pandemic, with Republicans less worried than Democrats.

People in counties that voted predominately for Trump in the 2016 election were less likely to perceive risk, seek information or practise physical distancing, according to a paper published last month by university researchers in Chicago and Texas.

As the pandemic progressed, some governors, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, right, set their own agenda for how to tackle it and clashed with Trump over supplies and the speed of the federal response. (Alex Brandon, John Minchillo/The Associated Press)

“Even when, objectively speaking, death is on the line, partisan bias still colours beliefs about facts,” study authors wrote. They say their paper, which is not yet peer-reviewed, accounted for differences in population density.

Another paper said what precautions individual Americans took against the virus may have been influenced by what they heard on political talk shows.

Viewers of one Fox News show hosted by Sean Hannity (who initially mocked the pandemic) were less likely to isolate than viewers of another Fox show hosted by Tucker Carlson (who took the threat seriously), according to the paper by researchers at the University of Chicago.

Google data shows Canadians did physical distancing earlier, and more extensively. U.S. research says political attitudes played a role in distancing decisions. (CBC News)

Tracking data collected by Google from smartphones suggests that Canadians practised more physical distancing than Americans and began doing it earlier.

Google’s reports for Saskatchewan and Alberta show people in those provinces doing more distancing than people across the border in Montana and North Dakota.

Clear public communication is essential in a pandemic, said Saverio Stranges, chair of epidemiology and biostatistics at Western University in London.

Canadian politicians, while not perfect, tried delivering consistent messages at the federal and provincial levels, guided by public-health experts, he said.

In the U.S., Trump repeatedly clashed with state governors at various stages of the crisis — criticizing their performance, blasting some for reopening too slowly, and at one point also accusing a Republican ally in Georgia for reopening too quickly.

Several governors expressed frustration at the mixed-messaging and lack of co-ordinated response and made their own plans for procuring protective equipment and curbing the virus.

Canadian Minister of Health Patty Hajdu and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau look on as Chief Medical Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference. Canadian politicians delivered a more consistent messages at the federal and provincial levels, said Saverio Stranges, chair of epidemiology and biostatistics at Western University in London. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Trump was quicker in some aspects of his response than the Canadian government. He limited travel much earlier and promoted the use of masks earlier.

Yet Trump’s messaging ebbed and flowed on basic details such as the severity of the crisis.

In February, a month after he restricted travel from China, Trump was still insisting the U.S. would have zero cases soon.

In that same period, Canada’s health minister was urging Canadians to stockpile food.

The White House is still blowing hot and cold about the threat level ahead, releasing a cautious plan for reopening, then encouraging protests in several states calling for immediate reopening of the economy.

The initial U.S. response to the pandemic was impeded by a testing debacle at the outset, but the country is now catching up to Canada in per-capita testing rates.

It has done 23,208 tests per million people compared to Canada’s 24,359 per million.

“The federal response in the United States is definitely responsible for where we are,” Adalja said. “You had from the beginning mismanagement and downplaying of the threat.”

Source from CBC News: 3 reasons the COVID-19 death rate is higher in U.S. than Canada, written by Alexander Panetta


Canada leans heavily on China for personal protective equipment as pandemic-induced shortage continues

Health Canada has authorized the importation of some personal protective equipment like masks and gowns that doesn’t meet its standards because of the global shortage of supplies. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

More than two months into the coronavirus pandemic, federal and provincial governments are using extraordinary measures to supply health-care workers with personal protective equipment, including letting them use expired masks.

And with more than 61,000 cases of COVID-19 coast to coast, and the country reaching the milestone of more than 4,000 deaths on Tuesday, supplies are just trickling in from overseas suppliers.

In March, Ottawa passed an interim order that allows masks, face shields and gowns to be imported and sold in Canada even if they do not meet Health Canada’s pre-COVID-19 standards.

Health Canada hasn’t responded to questions from CBC News about the ways in which it has relaxed its rules, but the order’s description says that the products must still be “manufactured according to comparable standards.”

The United States appears to be taking a similar approach. The U.S. Food and Drug administration says that “for the duration of the pandemic,” it will allow the importation of KN95 masks, which are respirators manufactured according to Chinese standards.


As of April 30, Health Canada had ordered 1.8 billion units of PPE, from masks to gloves to gownsOf the 36 devices approved so far under the order, 34 are manufacturers in China, including Wuhan Orient Honest International Trade Co., Shandong Zhushi Pharmaceutical Group Co., and Peek-a-Boo! I A See U!.

Ottawa has not said whether it has yet placed an order with any of these companies.

Much of the global supply of PPE comes from China.

That makes Canada’s situation even more complicated, as the Chinese market is currently fraught with troubles, according to Lynette Ong, an associate professor in the department of political science and China specialist at the University of Toronto. The chief difficulty, she said, “is sorting out the good and the bad apples.”

Last month, China’s own government revealed it had seized 89 million pieces of poor-quality product. Canada has also received at least one million masks from China that don’t meet its standards since the pandemic began.

An ‘unprecedented and urgent need’

Health Canada’s interim order was prompted by what the agency’s website calls an “unprecedented and urgent need for medical devices during the COVID-19 crisis.” That demand has caused critical shortages, it says.

Last May, the Canadian government dumped thousands of boxes of N95 masks just like this one into the Regina landfill because they had expired. But the province is currently using expired masks because PPE is in such short supply. (Submitted by Joe Audette)

The shortage is also leading some provinces to make unusual decisions.

For example, CBC News has learned that the Saskatchewan Health Authority has decided to allow health care workers to start using expired N95 masks from its stockpile.

They were purchased during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009-2010. The province says they expired after five years, meaning they’ve been expired for about five years.

The province told CBC News the masks were stored in optimal conditions and have been tested by an independent lab “where they passed both inhalation/exhalation and filtration tests.”

The province pointed CBC News to a Health Canada directive that said while ordinarily, expired masks should be discarded, in such unusual times, “an expired mask can still be effective at protecting health care providers if the straps are intact, there are no visible signs of damage, [and] they can be fit-tested.”

CBC recently reported that last May, Ottawa threw two million expired N95 masks into the Regina landfill when it emptied its medical supply warehouse in the city. Those masks had also been purchased around the time of the H1N1 outbreak.

Worried about ‘substandard supply’

The president of the Canadian Medical Association, Dr. Sandy Buchman, says such exceptional measures make some doctors anxious.

“That sends a signal, a message to us, that we’re getting substandard supply, and that is putting us and our patients … at risk,” he said.

Buchman said he’s been hearing from doctors from across Canada who are concerned about a lack of quantity and quality of PPE.

“In certain regions, specifically like in Alberta, the doctors felt the supplies were substandard, and they couldn’t be used,” Buchman said.

Dr. Sandy Buchman, president of the Canadian Medical Association, says if Canada had planned properly, health care professionals wouldn’t have to worry about the quality of their masks and gloves. (Canadian Medical Association)

He said this highlights a failure of government planning.

“If we had planned properly and monitored these provincial and federal supplies of the equipment, we wouldn’t be scrambling,” he said. “We would be stockpiled and ready to go.”

‘China is our only hope’

On April 22, Sally Thornton a vice-president with the Public Health Agency of Canada, which is responsible for the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile (NESS), told the federal standing committee on health that the stockpile was “doing well.”

“The NESS had been actually monitored and stockpiled as it was mandated and funded to do,” she said.

Thornton told the politicians that provinces and territories are primarily responsible for stocking their own supplies and Ottawa is merely there to provide “surge capacity” in a time of crisis.

But Wesley Wark, a national security expert from the University of Ottawa who’s studied Canada’s national stockpile, said the pandemic has exposed a gaping hole in Canada’s supply chain that urgently needs to be filled.

“The NESS concept has failed Canada in this current crisis,” he said.

Patty Hajdu, the federal health minister, has publicly acknowledged Canada “likely did not have enough” PPE in its national stockpile.

Watch: Health Minister Patty Hajdu addresses the need for personal protective equipment:

Health Minister Patty Hajdu says that successive federal governments have for decades underfunded public health preparedness, resulting in an insufficient amount of personal protective equipment in the federal pandemic stockpile. 1:58

Wark says Canada has made efforts to spur domestic production of PPE but says that’s more of a long-term solution.

“We find ourselves in a position where China is our only hope,” he said.

‘A Wild West market’

The Public Health Agency of Canada is co-ordinating the purchasing of PPE for the provinces and territories.

“Over the coming weeks, some companies that required time to scale up their operations will begin delivering supplies on a regular basis,” said an explanatory note attached to the May 1 update on Public Services and Procurement Canada’s website.

“Given the high global demand for these goods, there is a possibility that not all contracts will be entirely fulfilled.”

Thornton said once a supplier has been chosen, the products are visually inspected in China. Once they arrive in Canada, they’re given more rigorous testing in a lab.

Lynette Ong, a professor at the University of Toronto, says the PPE market in China right now is very complicated and requires great due diligence. (University of Toronto website)

She says Canada will need to exercise great due diligence in such an uneven market.

“I know what a Wild West market it is out there. It’s very complicated,” she said.

There have been a host of concerns about PPE from China.

In a meeting of the standing committee on government operations last month, Bill Matthews, the deputy minister of public services and procurement, confirmed the government had received a shipment of one million masks from China that, when tested, were deemed to be substandard. He said the manufacturer “is going to provide replacement product.”

On its list of received supplies, Canada notes that while it has received more than nine million N95 respirators, “a significant portion of these remain under testing.”

On April 18, CBC reported that health care workers in Alberta are complaining about the quality of masks brought in from China.

According to an April 27 report in the state-owned China Daily, market regulators seized 89 million masks and 418,000 other protective supplies.

The country’s vice-minister of the state administration for market regulation, Gan Lin, is quoted as saying “we mainly clamped down on those producing or selling fake, expired or low-qualify protective materials, including masks and disinfectants, and people who falsified others’ trademarks to mislead consumers.”

On its website, Makrite Industries, one the manufacturers recently approved under the government’s interim order to fast-track PPE to Canada, has sounded the alarm about fraudulent products.

Makrite Industries, a company approved to sell N95 masks into Canada, posted a warning on its website that the pictured product is counterfeit and should not be trusted. (www.makrite.com)

“Please be warned that the 9500-N95 particulate respirator shown in the pictures is a counterfeit product. It is not manufactured by Makrite,” the company said in an April 8 news release.

Ong, the China specialist, said that in normal times, China had well-established companies that provided the world with quality PPE. But the global pandemic has spurred many new entrants to the market, she said.

“It is only by going to the factory, looking at their quality and looking at the certification one by one, that you’re able sort that out.”

Canada is ‘vetting suppliers’ in China

Canada says that’s exactly what it’s doing. Anita Anand, the federal minister of public services and procurement, told the standing committee on health that Canada has retained the accounting and auditing firm Deloitte, which “plays a role in vetting suppliers and helping us with our supply chain.”

Suzhou Fangtian Industries Co., Ltd., a mask manufacturer near Shanghai, is one of 27 manufacturers approved by Health Canada under an interim order allowing PPE that doesn’t ordinarily meet Canada’s standards. (Suzhou Fangtian Industries website)

When asked why Canada doesn’t get the supplies tested in China, Thornton said “we do prefer to do them here. It’s good to have our National Research Council, our own testing and our own engineers taking a look at it. [We are] very cautious about what we’d send out to health care workers.”

While there will be some challenges, Wark says, the Chinese government will work hard to ensure Canada gets quality products.

“China wants to be able to retain a reputation not just as a mass supplier of goods but as a supplier of goods that work and of sophisticated goods,” he said. “That’s important to China’s self-reputation.”

Doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists gear up in personal protective equipment to do an intubation procedure on a COVID-19 patient in Ontario. The fact Canada does not have enough PPE and at least one province is using expired masks makes some doctors anxious, according to the head of the Canadian Medical Association. (Markham Stouffville Hospital)

A lack of co-ordination

Thornton said while Ottawa is playing the role of co-ordinator in the ordering of PPE internationally, early on in the pandemic response, it was flying blind. There wasn’t a clear picture of what supplies were held by each province and where the shortages might be.

“We are not that familiar with what provinces had in their respective stockpiles,” Thornton told the committee. “So, very quickly, we got a heads-up in terms of where there would be national gaps.”

She said in early February, provinces were asked to fill out a survey indicating what supplies they had and what they needed.

Wark said if Ottawa doesn’t know what the provinces have, then “you can’t build NESS on the basis of being sure it’s complementary to provincial stockpiles.”

In addition, he pointed out, the provinces have no idea what Ottawa has in stock.

“That is, it seems to me, a huge strategic problem,” he said.

He said it’s a problem politicians had better fix because public health officials are predicting multiple waves of COVID-19 infections, which means this crisis could go on for years.

Source from CBC News: Canada leans heavily on China for personal protective equipment as pandemic-induced shortage continues, written by Geoff Leo


The reopening gamble: Set your timer for three weeks

The reopening gamble: Set your timer for three weeks

(CNN)Set a timer for three weeks.

By late May, we should know whether certain US states collected on a major gamble or committed a hideous error by reopening their economies.

If a tide of sickness and death overwhelms the early openers, lockdowns may return, making Americans’ trudge back toward normal economic life even slower and more painful. But if infections can be kept at manageable levels, these pioneers may begin to piece together a vision of the “new normal” that everyone keeps talking about.

The good news is that some of the states beginning to open up — like South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin were never as savagely hit as states like New York, California and Michigan. The bad news is that their turn may be next. Science warns the virus is still out there, waiting for an opening.

The White House, which always creates a version of reality to fit its political goals, wants to revive the economy asap — a key to President Donald Trump winning reelection in November. But it has failed to build a testing and tracing infrastructure to ensure a safe return to business.

Already lax White House guidelines call for a 14-day dip in infections to be observed, before reopening is considered. Almost no state has satisfied that: Georgia, the state with the most aggressive opening plan, recorded 1,000 new cases of Covid-19 on Friday alone. And Mississippi, which was set to announce re-openings of some businesses on Friday, changed its mind after recording the highest single increase in new cases.

The lockdown’s deprivations are imposing their own dire consequences. But politicians and pundits who champion this cause rarely acknowledge the potential medical consequences without resorting to magical thinking.

Source from CNN News: The reopening gamble: Set your timer for three weeks, analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN


Auto parts factories retool to make medical equipment, while worry grows over sector’s future

Parts plants now making things like face shields and gowns, but it doesn’t replace auto-sector revenue

An auto parts factory, Mitchell Plastics, retools its machines to build face shields instead of centre consoles for cars. 3:03

“Our generation has had life so good for the longest time — this is almost our world war three,” says Joe D’Angelo about the COVID-19 pandemic.

D’Angelo is the president of Mitchell Plastics, an auto parts company that normally employs 2,800 people in factories across North America. It manufactures centre consoles for cars and trucks, supplying many of the world’s largest automakers.

COVID-19 has shuttered that business.

D’Angelo could have turned the lights out at his factory in Kitchener, Ont., but instead he’s using the facility to help in the fight against the virus.

“We want to have an impact,” says D’Angelo, as he tours the factory his engineers have retooled to make plastic face shields, a piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) needed for health care workers.

“We want to hear that there’s no longer this shortage of PPE out there, and hope that one day we can say we had an impact to improve the situation.”

Joe D’Angelo, right, is the president of Mitchell Plastics, an auto parts company that normally employs 2,800 people in factories across North America to make centre consoles for cars and trucks. Now the company is using its Kitchener, Ont., facility to make PPE for health care workers. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

D’Angelo is not the only auto-parts maker who has joined the fight against COVID-19.

Flavio Volpe is the president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association — he represents 300 companies. He says the only way Canadians were ever going to get all the PPE needed to fight COVID-19 was if the auto sector was able to convert some of their factories to do it.

“It’s like in World War Two when we were making planes and boats and guns,” Volpe says.

“Just like in a war, during a pandemic the people who are on the front lines need things to get between them and the enemy.”

Since the pandemic started, Volpe has been working as a middleman between auto parts companies and different levels of government trying to get everyone the information they need.

In recent weeks his stress and anxiety has grown, and he says sleep can be a problem.

“I get messages and emails from front-line workers who are in tears,” Volpe says. “They read the news and they say ‘we’re there to serve, and we’re going to show up to work, but we’re in danger — can you help?’ And I say we’re trying our best. How can you sleep when you get that?”

‘I call it the largest peace-time mobilization of Canada’s industrial capacity,’ says Flavio Volpe, right, the president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

D’Angelo says the stakes are so high when it comes to protecting health-care workers from the virus that he didn’t wait for an order to start modifying his assembly line to make face shields. He told his staff to figure out how to make face shields before he even had someone to take them.

“We just jumped on it,” D’Angelo says. “We bought the materials and started making the shields before we had an order. We just knew that the demand was there.”

The company is now able to manufacture around 18,000 shields a day. The day CBC News visited the Kitchener factory, the company was about to deliver its first shipment to the Ontario government.

While the province pays for the shields, making PPE isn’t a money-making venture for Mitchell Plastics when you consider the work that went into designing the products and the retrofitting of the factory. In fact, the company may lose money on the venture.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” D’Angelo says.

‘We have to help out the hospitals. We have to help everyone there who is trying to keep us safe,’ says Danielle McLeod. She is normally a supervisor at the Mitchell Plastics auto parts factory in Kitchener, Ont., but now she’s working on the machines to produce face shields for front-line workers. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

The race to mass produce test swabs

In total, Mitchell Plastics aims to deliver somewhere around half a million face shields to front-line workers to be used in hospitals and nursing homes.

Recently, the company was contacted to see if it could also mass produce COVID-19 testing swabs. D’Angelo asked his engineers to get to work on the problem.

The director of engineering at the company, Jason Fraser, says making the plastic swabs hasn’t been all that difficult, it’s the necessary sterilization that’s been a challenge.

“Obviously we don’t need to do that with auto parts,” he says.

Jason Fraser, left, normally engineers auto parts, but now he’s trying to mass produce COVID-19 test swabs. The director of engineering at Mitchell Plastics says that making the plastic swabs isn’t that difficult, it’s the necessary sterilization that’s been a challenge. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

“I was born and raised in Canada and have lived in Ontario my entire life,” he adds. “It gives me and my group a huge sense of pride to be able to help out all Canadians in this challenging time.”

The next challenge for Fraser is certification.

He’s sent sample swabs to the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, where they are being tested to see if they meet rigorous medical industry specifications.

If the swabs pass, then Mitchell Plastics will conduct additional sterilization testing before it begins mass production and distribution.

A lot of failure — a lot of success

It’s been challenging for the auto parts sector to shift gears.

When the pandemic first started, Volpe says 165 companies reached out to volunteer their production facilities.

“They said ‘send us the specifications, explain the volumes and we will tell you if we can do it or not,'” says Volpe.

However, there were a lot of failures as companies attempted to manufacture what was needed, but realized they weren’t able to, Volpe says. Of the 165 companies, 77 came through with proposals saying they could make items needed by health-care workers.

So far, 25 of those companies are producing things like ventilators, face shields, and gowns.

A plant in Tilbury, Ont., that normally makes vehicle airbags, for example, now produces material for medical gowns.

Another nearby auto parts company is manufacturing masks.

Workers at Mitchell Plastics have retooled their production line to make face shields for health care workers. The company can make about 18,000 a day. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Volpe stresses that for auto parts companies, making PPE doesn’t even come close to replacing the income from the auto industry, due to the cost of making moulds and prototypes and getting them certified.

“If a company makes a mould [for PPE], then they are out $60,000 to $90,000 in a time when they are getting no revenue,” says Volpe.

By the time a company sends a prototype for sterilized testing at a federal microbiology lab, Volpe points out, they have likely spent more than $350,000.

“But they just did it,” he says. “This is the most wasteful, from a business perspective, the most wasteful exercise anyone could be involved in. And they’re only doing it because it matters. And I love it.”

A uncertain future

In fact, Volpe says working to defeat COVID-19 has been one of the most rewarding things he’s ever done.

Still, that doesn’t mean he isn’t worried about the auto industry post-pandemic.

“I get paid to worry about the health of the companies,” Volpe says.

His main concern is that some auto parts manufacturers won’t make it through the pandemic.

“You go two to three months without revenue and you burn through working capital, and there are going to be failures,” he says.

‘Our generation has had life so good for the longest time – this is almost our world war three,’ says Joe D’Angelo, right, about the COVID-19 pandemic. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

“This is the industrial engine of Ontario and one of the industrial engines of Canada. And we’re all very proud of an industry that has been around for 120 years, but there are going to be companies that don’t come out of this,” Volpe warns.

Meanwhile, D’Angelo wonders how many people will want to buy a car even when the economy opens back up. He says before the shutdown there was a 70-day supply of cars in North America. With the new reality of a struggling economy, he wonders if that supply of unsold cars would now last 200 days.

“You would hate to think that this can go on past the end of May,” he says.

“Any longer than that, it’s really an ugly situation. We are concerned about other suppliers that may fail, and once the whole supply chain starts to break down we’ll never be able to put a car together anymore.”


D’Angelo has worked his entire adult life to build his company up to what it is today, with facilities all over the world.

It’s remarkable growth, considering that in 1997 when he and his partner first started in the auto business, their company was so small D’Angelo jokes there were only 14 people at the staff Christmas party.

Just prior to the COVID-19 shutdowns, the facility in Kitchener usually employed about 700 people over three shifts.

D’Angelo, right, says it’s hard to see his Kitchener factory so empty. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Now there are only 30 people working in the plant to make the face shields — all of them volunteer company staff who don’t normally work on the machines.

D’Angelo says it’s hard to see his factory so empty.

“Usually this plant is humming. There’s a buzz, you can just feel it being very productive, it’s full of people working hard. It’s kind of heartbreaking.

“But making the face shields gives us a glimmer of hope in an otherwise very bad situation.”

Source from CBC News: Auto parts factories retool to make medical equipment, while worry grows over sector’s future, written by Nick Purdon & Leonardo Palleja


With some provinces reopening, where does Canada’s PPE supply chain stand?


A driver for Safecare B.C. secures a load of personal protective equipment in a truck for Safecare B.C. in Surrey, B.C. Tuesday, April 28, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS / Jonathan Hayward)

TORONTO — Efforts across the country and abroad are helping Canada develop a stable supply of needed personal protective equipment (PPE) amid the COVID-19 pandemic, federal officials said Sunday.

Acquiring PPE has been a major challenge for the government during the pandemic, as many countries have been outbidding each other and competing for access to a limited supply of masks, respirators and other items.

The situation in China, where much of the world’s supply of PPE is manufactured, has been likened to the “Wild West,” with chartered planes being turned around and sent home after a higher bid came in for the supplies they were meant to carry. Last month, this affected two flights organized by the Canadian government.

This is important not only because health-care workers and others exposed to COVID-19 patients need protection from the disease, but because adequate supplies of PPE are a key factor in plans to reopen closed parts of society – and some provinces are ready to move ahead with reopening.

“As we open up and as we get more and more transmission, potentially … we have to make sure that when patients do start coming to the hospitals and we do start seeing another surge, that PPE is still available,” Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamliton, Ont., told CTV News Channel on Sunday.

Speaking remotely on Sunday at a press conference in Ottawa, Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said Canada’s ability to get PPE out of China has improved markedly since the days of empty planes flying out of the country. She noted that there have been “flights coming in nearly every day this week,” including Friday night’s arrival of the world’s largest cargo plane.

“In a competitive environment, our dedicated team on the ground in China ensures that supplies are coming into the warehouse and making their way onto the planes back to Canada,” Anand said.

As the government finds its footing in securing PPE from China, domestic manufacturers are retooling their factories to produce the needed equipment, making Canada less reliant on imports.

Reagents, the chemicals used in the processing of COVID-19 tests, are one example of this. In the early days of the pandemic, Canada faced a backlog in conducting its tests due to a shortage amid the high global demand for reagents. Now, New Brunswick-based LuminUltra is capable of producing enough reagents to handle a load of 500,000 tests per month until next year.

Anand detailed several contracts the government has signed with Canadian manufacturers, saying an agreement with Medicom calls for 80 million surgical masks per year over the next 10 years from the company’s factories in Quebec, as well as 20 million N95 respirators.

Another Quebec manufacturer, Logistik Unicorp, has signed on to produce 11 million medical gowns, Anand said, while Ontario’s Sterling Industries and the Canadian arm of Hewlett Packard will manufacture 15.5 million face shields.

Signing the contracts is only the first step, though. According to government figures, Canada has ordered more than 52 million face shields, hundreds of millions of masks and more than one billion pairs of gloves, although only a small fraction of those supplies have been received.

To help smooth out the pathway from ordering to acquiring, the government has created what it is calling the COVID-19 Supply Council, which is advising the government on how to build supply chains capable of handling Canada’s demands now and in the future, including if the pandemic worsens. Its members include many business, manufacturing and transportation stakeholders, as well as representatives from groups such as the Canadian Pharmacists Association and the Canadian Red Cross.

“From manufacture to arrival or production in Canada, what is it that we can be doing differently to ensure that we have proper and effective and efficient procurements within our government and across the country?” Anand said.

“This is procurement like it’s never been done before.”

Source from CTV News: With some provinces reopening, where does Canada’s PPE supply chain stand? written by Ryan Flanagan CTVNews.ca Writer


Coronavirus: in a pop-up lab in Beijing, this firm is trying to clean up China’s murky face mask industry

  • Smart Air launched as an air purifier provider and tested masks for the notorious Beijing smog, but the Covid-19 pandemic changed that

  • After coronavirus hit, the firm opened a makeshift lab in Beijing to test the 2020’s hottest commodity: face masks

Commuters wear face masks to protect against the spread of new coronavirus as they walk through a subway station in Beijing. As the virus has travelled round the world, masks have become one of the essential commodities of 2020. Photo: AP

Commuters wear face masks to protect against the spread of new coronavirus as they walk through a subway station in Beijing. As the virus has travelled round the world, masks have become one of the essential commodities of 2020. Photo: AP

Tucked away in an unassuming residential building at the edge of the bustling Sanlitun shopping area in downtown Beijing, a small start-up has become a magnet for coronavirus-related requests from around the world.

Smart Air has converted a nondescript bedroom into a laboratory, where last week it started using its self-developed equipment to test the effectiveness of 2020’s hottest commodity: face masks made in China.

With the world in dire need of masks to help contain their own coronavirus outbreaks, China has stepped in to meet demand. In March, it exported almost 4 billion masks, customs data show, having itself imported 2 billion during its own outbreak in January and February.
But at the same time, scepticism over the quality of Chinese supplies has surged, with defective masks and other medical equipment shipped out of the country making a flurry of headlines over recent months.
Part of the problem is the manic nature of the market.
Up to 85 per cent of the world’s masks are produced by China, with tens of thousands of new players swarming into the market since the pandemic began, seeking a quick buck when sales of their regular products have been hit by the virus containment efforts around the world.
These companies came from a wide range of different industrial fields, from electric vehicle manufacturing to blockchain technology development, but few have experience in making masks.

“So you have all these factories in the ‘wild west’, but what are they actually making? Are their products actually any good?” said Paddy Robertson, the chief executive of Smart Air, who invited The South China Morning Post to witness his testing processes.

Paddy Robertson is the CEO of Smart Air, which previously made air purifiers and tested masks for the Beijing smog. Now, he is being contacted by people from around the world concerned about the quality of masks bought from China to fight coronavirus. Photo: Orange Wang

Paddy Robertson is the CEO of Smart Air, which previously made air purifiers and tested masks for the Beijing smog. Now, he is being contacted by people from around the world concerned about the quality of masks bought from China to fight coronavirus. Photo: Orange Wang

Having launched in 2013 to sell air purifiers, the start-up began testing masks more than four years ago, in an effort to help Beijingers deal with the perpetual smog hanging over the capital.

Testing face masks for their ability to filter out coronavirus, then, seemed like a logical step. The company had already been testing a range of household products for their effectiveness, such as DIY face coverings, following recommendations from various governments to use makeshift masks.

But the firm’s preliminary results of tests on KN95 respirators, conducted in the makeshift lab in Beijing, present a patchwork picture. Even products that claim to be made in the same factory can show a large difference in quality.

At the request of a US buyer, Smart Air tested a sample of a KN95 mask made by a company that previously manufactured display cases.

Zheng Min, a Smart Air test engineer, wearing a DIY mask made from household materials at the company’s headquarters in Beijing. Photo: Orange Wang

Zheng Min, a Smart Air test engineer, wearing a DIY mask made from household materials at the company’s headquarters in Beijing. Photo: Orange Wang

The producer claimed their respirators could, as the name suggests, filter out at least 95 per cent of airborne particles, but tests showed that they only caught 50 per cent. The American buyer was forced to give up plans to sell those masks to hospitals, having ordered about 100,000.

Another sample then arrived – claiming to be from the same factory – with a slight design tweak around the ear loops. For the second batch, the particle capturing capability jumped to 90 per cent.

“Our concern is that these suppliers may not actually be [from] the factories as they claim to be, but middle men sourcing and then reselling a wide range of masks. This makes traceability and quality control even more difficult,” Robertson said.

This is a widely-reported problem among those working in China’s fast-moving medical equipment market, which is brimming with fly-by-night brokers and scurrilous salesmen. Products are often sold at a huge mark-up, with manufacturers or the brokers that claim to represent them often demanding full payment up front.

Out of a makeshift laboratory in a residential building in Beijing, start-up Smart Air is testing masks in Beijing. Photo: Orange Wang

Out of a makeshift laboratory in a residential building in Beijing, start-up Smart Air is testing masks in Beijing. Photo: Orange Wang

As of last week, the nine-member team of Smart Air in Beijing had received 46 different mask designs claiming to be from 24 factories around China, and had completed tests on 15 types of masks.

To test the masks, they use a fan to blow ambient room air from their bedroom-turned-lab into a transparent tube, then place the mask on the other end with a laser particle counter behind it to measure what percentage of roughly coronavirus-sized microparticles are getting through.

Results showed that eight out of 15 failed to meet the standards they were advertising, with all suppliers claiming their respirators were capable of filtering out at least 95 per cent of airborne particles.

The worst performing mask captured just 18 per cent of particles – a shocking figure considering they are being marketed as hospital-ready goods to countries with desperate shortages of medical supplies.

“The quality of masks being sold varies greatly. It will be very difficult for consumers to be able to tell which masks meet the standard and which do not, potentially leading to increased risk of infection among certain groups, for example, health workers,” Robertson said.

The quality of Chinese masks and other medical supplies has also caused a diplomatic storm that has caught the attention of the central government in Beijing.

From Canada to India, countries have rejected Chinese medical equipment for failing to meet their standards. Beijing, worried poor quality products would tarnish China’s national image abroad, stepped in to take the steam out of an overheating market.

The government introduced quality inspections for every shipment of medical gear to be used to fight Covid-19, even though it slowed down the exports of these supplies when the rest of the world needed them.

This bottleneck, Robertson said, underscored the need for independent third-party testing that would give overseas buyers confidence that they were dealing with legitimate suppliers.

With more than 30,000 new companies registering to make or trade masks in China since the start of the year, Smart Air’s makeshift testing lab can only really hope to test a fraction.

But the volume of correspondence the firm is receiving from worried buyers all over the world illustrates the scale of the problem, in what has become the most bizarre and fevered industrial trend of the year so far.

Sign up now and get a 10% discount (original price US$400) off the China AI Report 2020 by SCMP Research. Learn about the AI ambitions of Alibaba, Baidu & JD.com through our in-depth case studies, and explore new applications of AI across industries. The report also includes exclusive access to webinars to interact with C-level executives from leading China AI companies (via live Q&A sessions). Offer valid until 31 May 2020.

Source from South China Morning Post: Coronavirus: in a pop-up lab in Beijing, this firm is trying to clean up China’s murky face mask industry, written by Orange Wang


Why can I get a haircut, but not see my friends? Your COVID-19 questions answered

Here’s what you’re asking us today about the coronavirus pandemic

A woman gets a haircut at a salon, in Marietta, Ga., on April 26, 2020. As of Monday, people in Manitoba will be able to get a haircut, but hair stylists and barbers must follow restrictions before reopening. (Jason Burles/CBC)

We’re answering your questions about the pandemic. Send yours to COVID@cbc.ca and we’ll answer as many as we can. We’ll publish a selection of answers every weekday online, and also put some questions to the experts during The National and on CBC News Network.

So far we’ve received more than 30,000 emails from all corners of the country. Your questions have surprised us, stumped us and got us thinking, including a number about restaurant reopenings including this one from Eli R:

Why are restaurant and kitchen staff not wearing masks?

Another sector that’s getting the go-ahead to reopen, with restrictions, in several provinces is the restaurant industry, although in Manitoba and Quebec, restaurants will be open for take-out, delivery, patio and walk-up service only. So why aren’t kitchen and other restaurant staff wearing masks or other protective gear if they’re serving the public?

Many are wearing masks, but it’s not mandatory.

The coronavirus is not food-borne, and the chance of transmission through food preparation is quite low. Frequent hand-washing, particularly before or after handling food and containers, can further mitigate the risks.

You can read more about COVID-19 and food in earlier editions of the FAQ.

Dr. Peter Lin, CBC medical specialist and family doctor, suggests kitchen staff should keep two metres apart and customer-facing personnel should also maintain physical distancing and wear masks.

Health Canada also has tips for restaurants which include using masks when available.

The national organization Restaurants Canada says it’s working to ensure that food service operators are kept up to date on guidance from the government.

Read more about how restaurants across Canada are handling COVID-19.

Why is it okay to get a haircut, but not visit with friends and family?

As some provinces start reopening next week, Oreleen L., from Manitoba, wonders why it’s safe to get a haircut, but not to visit with friends and family.

As far as hair salons go, yes, as of May 4 you can get a haircut in Manitoba; however, hair stylists and barbers must follow restrictions before they can open. These include:

  • Staff and clients must use the self-screening tool before booking an appointment.
  • Employees must stay home when ill with COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Clients are screened by telephone before an appointment is booked and are not seen if they have COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Appointment times are staggered to allow for physical distancing, and clients should attend alone, without friends or family.

In provinces like New Brunswick, where hair stylists are still waiting for the go-ahead to reopen, some salons are putting up plexiglass barriers to comply with physical distancing rules, in the hope that they will be able to see customers again soon.

Oreleen L. also wants to know why she can’t visit family and friends. According to a Manitoba provincial spokesperson, visiting with family has never been prohibited in the province, but limited contact with others helps flatten the curve.

“Social distancing guidelines remain in place and work by limiting the number of people that you and your family come into close contact with,” the province says.

Is Canada looking into using remdesivir?

The U.S. is fast-tracking approval of a drug to help treat COVID-19 called remdesivir, which top health official Dr. Anthony Fauci said, has a “clear cut, significant, positive effect in diminishing the time to recovery,” after favourable results of a clinical trial.

We’ve had several people, including JP L., ask whether Canada will be using this antiviral drug as a treatment.

Remdesivir, which impairs the coronavirus’s ability to replicate, was initially used to treat Ebola, but is not officially approved for use in Canada. Yet, some hospitals are getting access to it through “individual compassionate use.”

What does this mean? Health Canada has a program, which allows particular, unapproved drugs to be used in unique cases. Health Canada states the makers of remdesivir, Gilead, is transitioning to this “provision of emergency access” but can no longer accept more requests due to “an overwhelming demand.”

In an email to CBC News, Gilead said it is ramping up production but did not specify how much remdesivir would be sent to Canada.

WATCH | Vik Adhopia on The National about remdesivir’s clinical trial:

The antiviral drug remdesivir is showing promise as a COVID-19 treatment in early U.S. clinical trials, though other research hasn’t seen as much success. 1:59

Can I move during the pandemic?

Today is May 1, meaning rent and moving are on the minds of many, including Pauline B., who wonders if she can change residences during the pandemic.

The short answer is yes, there are no rules preventing it. But remember, the less you stay at home, the more your risk to potential exposure climbs.

“It’s a tough time to be undertaking a move,” said Dr. Samir Gupta, respirologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

He explains that moves often require a lot of exposure to various surfaces, such as door knobs and handles, which are some of the riskiest forms of transmission of the coronavirus. He urges those moving to be aware of how many surfaces they touch and to maintain good hand hygiene.

“Be very cognizant of handwashing,” he said. “We say it again and again but it really is the very best way for someone to protect themselves.”

Some of the movers we contacted are also taking extra precautions, including giving crews hand sanitizer and instructing them to physically distance whenever possible.

We’re also answering your questions every night on The National. Last night, an infectious disease specialist answered your questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, including whether airborne transmission is possible. Watch below:

An infectious disease specialist answers your questions about the COVID-19 pandemic including whether airborne transmission is possible. 2:18

Source from CBC News: Here’s what you’re asking us today about the coronavirus pandemic, written by Amil NiaziAnia Bessonov .