The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for June 5



A woman prays in a mosque in Tunis one day after Tunisia reopened mosques following a nearly three-month break because of measures to stem the spread of COVID-19. (Hassene Dridi/The Associated Press)

Unmasking the stealth virus behind COVID-19

Scientists have discovered the pandemic-causing coronavirus is unique in short-circuiting the safest way our immune system kills off a virus — which could have implications for using interferon to treat COVID-19, writes CBC's Amina Zafar. Interferon describes a family of proteins produced by the body's immune system in response to an invading viral infection. As the name implies, interferon interferes with the virus's ability to copy itself. Interferon drugs are made in the lab and were used for years to treat hepatitis, a liver infection, as well as other diseases that involve the immune system, such as multiple sclerosis and some cancers.

In May, researchers in Hong Kong published the results of their Phase 2 trial on fewer than 150 people who were admitted to hospital with mild or moderate COVID-19. Participants were randomly assigned to a combination of potential antivirals, including interferon, or placebo injections for two weeks. The findings lent support to the idea of continuing research efforts, including in Canada, to investigate interferon in larger, blinded trials designed to find more definitive answers. Dr. Jordan Feld, a liver specialist at Toronto General Hospital and senior scientist at U of T, previously used interferon to treat people infected with hepatitis. He's now leading a Phase 2 clinical trial to test a targeted form of the drug, called peginterferon lambda, in injections compared with saline placebo injections. "It's kind of like a stealth virus," Feld said of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Normally, when interferon in the body's white blood cells responds to a viral invader, the interferon sends out a flare signal so nearby cells will work to stop the virus from copying itself or replicating if they, too, should be invaded. In ferrets infected in the lab (a common animal model for studying respiratory viruses), healthy human lung cells and in people with COVID-19, doctors and scientists say it seems like the natural interferon "flies under the radar" of the immune system and isn't activated the way it should be. Feld said the idea behind giving interferon medications is to provide the body with what it should be making to fend off the infection.

The potential therapeutic approach gained scientific backing last month when a study published in the journal Cell showed a "striking" feature of SARS-CoV-2 infection. Ben tenOever is a Canadian-born professor of microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York who led the Cell study and has been flooded with email requests from researchers the world over to test experimental drug compounds against the virus. He said every cell that gets infected has two major jobs:

Fortify its defences and those around it with a "call to arms" mediated by interferon, like sending out an emergency flare for the immune system's first responders. Send a "call for reinforcements" for a longer-term response by releasing proteins called chemokines.

Most viruses block both of those roles, and what makes SARS-Cov-2 unique is it blocks the call-to-arms function from interferon only. "Treatment with interferon or drugs that induce interferon, the main character in the call to arms, is probably beneficial," tenOever said. "The secret is to do it early," he said, when people have a mild cough and test positive for the virus and haven't developed respiratory distress.

But there could also be mild side-effects. When we're fighting off a flu virus, blame interferon for feeling so crummy, feverish and achy as your immune system kicks into high gear. Likewise, interferon drugs could also lead to flu-like symptoms for a day or two. Individuals enrolling in COVID-19 clinical trials of interferon will need to weigh whether that (potential) shortfall is worth the (potential) payoff of protection from the deadly damage and delivers key answers that only their participation can offer. Matthew Miller, an associate professor of infectious disease and immunology at McMaster University who isn't involved in the clinical trials or studies, called tenOever's paper "an important first step in understanding how our body is responding to this particular new virus."

Click below to watch more from The National

The COVID-19 pandemic has also changed how people care for their pets. Andrew Chang walks through what to expect at the groomer, veterinary clinic and other pet services. 1:42 IN BRIEF

Ontario considering Stage 2 of reopening despite steady stream of new COVID-19 cases

Ontario Premier Doug Ford signalled that he could announce the next phase of loosening Ontario's pandemic restrictions as early as next week, despite a recent uptick in new cases of COVID-19. Stage 2 would allow a wider number of office-based businesses to reopen and expand the maximum size of social gatherings that's currently limited to five. The province's top criteria for further easing its semi-lockdown is a consistent decline over a two- to four-week period in the daily number of new cases.

That benchmark has not declined consistently in the three weeks since May 14, when Ford announced Ontario's first stage of looser restrictions, including allowing non-essential retail stores outside of shopping malls to open for customers. Since that date, Ontario's daily number of reported new cases dipped below 300 only twice; the daily average in that period has been 371, while the average number of new cases daily has trended upward for the past week. By contrast, Quebec's daily number of new cases has steadily declined since early May and has been below 300 for each of the past four days, while British Columbia has not reported more than 30 cases in a single day since May 6. Fifteen of Ontario's 34 public health units have five or fewer active confirmed cases, according to the provincial COVID-19 database on Thursday. None of the public health units north of the Muskoka region has more than three active cases.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott sounded less bullish than the premier about the prospect of a move to loosen restrictions. Elliott said Thursday that the daily count of new cases has "gone back and forth" in the past week to 10 days. "The numbers are gradually going down. We're going to need to see that to continue," she said. There were some positive trends in Ontario's data reported by the provincial Health Ministry — including a steady decline in hospitalizations and a decreasing number of long-term care homes with outbreaks — but the province's top public health officials have indicated that it's essential they see a steady reduction in the number of new cases daily before recommending a move to Stage 2. A look at the case numbers by their "episode date" (the estimated date of infection, according to the Public Health Ontario interactive data page) shows no sign of a downward trend through the end of May.

Read more about what's happening in Ontario

Federal government to provide $14B to provinces, territories to 'safely' restart economies

The federal government is providing $14 billion to the provinces and territories to help them "safely and carefully" reopen their economies. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the money will help pay for more personal protective equipment (PPE) for front-line health-care workers and businesses, and for child care so that parents can go back to work. "Provinces and territories are facing different realities, so flexibility will be important, but here's the bottom line: For seniors and people who need extra support, for kids and workers — this plan is here for you," Trudeau said.

Some of the money going to provinces and territories is meant to help them improve the state of long-term care, and to help municipalities continue providing core public services such as transit. The government is saying little at this point about how the money will be carved up and when it will flow. Ontario Premier Doug Ford said it's a "start" but $14 billion falls far short of what's required to address the "massive need" in Canada's most populous province. "The reality is, we have a $23-billion problem in Ontario, and $14 billion for all of Canada ... just won't cut it," he said. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said the government is taking a collaborative approach to fine-tuning the proposal, and stressed that the federal funds are meant to help with the first six to eight months of economic recovery.

Trudeau also announced that Canadians with disabilities will receive a one-time payment of up to $600 to help offset the higher costs of living during the pandemic. The government has announced emergency aid for unemployed Canadians, students, businesses and seniors, but advocates say that people with disabilities were falling through the cracks. Many face increases in the cost of living, such as higher grocery bills and delivery service fees. Conservative MP Dan Albas, his party's critic for employment, workforce development and disability inclusion, said the federal assistance programs announced to date have come with few details and delays in implementation.

Read more about the support for provinces and territories

Canada added 290,000 jobs in May, but unemployment rate inches up to record high

After losing more than three million jobs in March and April, Canada's economy added 290,000 jobs in May, Statistics Canada reported Friday. The data agency reported that 290,000 more people had paid employment in May than in April. The surge means May was the best one-month gain for jobs in Canada in 45 years, although it happened from an admittedly low bar. It also means the economy has now replaced about 10 per cent of the jobs it lost to COVID-19.

The job gains came as a pleasant surprise to economists, most of whom were expecting more job losses for the month. "We are just beginning to dig out of a massively deep hole, and this will take an extended period of time before the rest of the three million job losses can be recouped," Bank of Montreal's Doug Porter said. Despite the gains, Canada's official unemployment rate rose to 13.7 per cent, as 491,000 more people were looking for work in the job market — notably students, whose search for summer work isn't normally recorded in the months before May. Porter noted that at 13.7 per cent, Canada's jobless rate is at its highest point since the Second World War. And "that leaves Canada with the dubious distinction of having the highest unemployment rate among all major economies," he said.

The numbers also showed that two-thirds of the new jobs went to men, while women are still bearing the brunt of the impact from COVID-19. That's partly because men are overrepresented in industries like manufacturing and construction, which are recovering faster than other parts of the economy. "As more COVID-19 restrictions are eased in the coming months, labour market outcomes of men and women with children will continue to be monitored," Statistics Canada said. Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said the data reveals that "women, low-paid workers and racialized workers continue to struggle disproportionately." "Today's numbers also underscore the desperate need for accelerated action on child care to strengthen the job and economic recovery for women," he said.

Read more about Canada's economic situation


Experts say reaching emissions goals and reopening economies amid pandemic shouldn't be mutually exclusive

A recent study published in Nature Climate Change suggests that as a result of global shutdowns because of the COVID-19 pandemic, CO2 emissions in 2020 could drop by roughly seven per cent. The United Nations Environment Program's report from last November found that in order to limit global warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, CO2 emissions would need to drop by 7.6 per cent annually over the next decade.

At first glance, it might appear as though a devastating economic shutdown is the only way to reach emissions targets set by the UN. But some experts say this isn't the case, and insist there is a way to have economic growth and reduce emissions that adhere to the UN guidelines. "We can't have this [kind of a shutdown] for tackling climate change — absolutely not," said Corinne Le Quéré, a Canadian professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia and lead author of the Nature study. "This is a really painful way to get a decrease in emissions." She also noted that it likely won't last, but said this could be an opportunity to funnel money into green technologies as many governments around the world are trying to stimulate their economies during the pandemic.

Don Drummond, an economist who worked for the federal Department of Finance for 23 years, pointed out that emissions in Canada have almost flat-lined, on average, over the past few years during a period of economic growth (prior to the coronavirus pandemic). This, he said, is evidence that reducing emissions to UN guidelines is possible. "We've achieved higher growth with flattening emissions and we can and should go further and achieve positive growth with declining emissions," said Drummond, an adjunct professor at Queen's University and former chief economist at the Toronto-Dominion Bank. Drummond, who was one of the architects of the goods and services tax in 1991, said there is a long history in Canada of scare-mongering that a given new policy will kill the economy, from the GST to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Quite often, it doesn't, he said.


Donation bins begin to reopen in Nova Scotia with easing of COVID-19 restrictions

The donation bins for some organizations in Nova Scotia, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Halifax, have been reopened as the province lifts some COVID-19 restrictions. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Donation bins for some organizations in Nova Scotia, including the IWK Foundation and Big Brothers Big Sisters, are reopening as some restrictions around COVID-19 are being lifted in the province "We're doing a very slow return to service," said Shelda Cochrane, a manager with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Halifax. "We just opened up our bins last weekend and we're really just starting to get that message out to the public."

Big Brothers Big Sisters has taken the tape off bins and put up some new signs asking people to take precautions when they place items in the bins. Donated items are sold to Value Village. "We know people have been spring cleaning and holding on to things and they're anxious to get rid of them. But we also want people to be careful when donating," The donations make up about one-third of its annual budget, after expenses, Cochrane said.

The IWK Foundation, seeking used clothing and footwear, reopened its bins this week. The foundation has 600 bins in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. A third-party organization based in Digby County, N.S., collects items from the bins and resells them. A portion of the proceeds from the bins benefits the IWK Foundation each year, and the donation bin funds will still go toward the cost of programs, new equipment and research at the children's hospital.

Read the full story about the donation bins

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