New virus epicentre as ‘double mutant’ strain tips daily cases past 100k

India has become the new global epicentre of coronavirus as daily new cases surge past 100,000 and a “double mutant” strain takes hold in the vast subcontinent.

And if the virus makes its way to rural areas as feared, the country is set to surpass the rest of the world in COVID-19 case numbers.

On Sunday, more than 103,790 cases were recorded as Indian authorities acknowledged the country was being engulfed by a shocking second COVID-19 wave.

Daily infections have grown almost twelvefold since cases dropped to just a few thousand a day in late winter and authorities eased restrictions.

Photographs of Indian people last weekend showed large crowds congregating and few wearing masks.

This comes a fortnight after a new “double mutant” strain was identified among those infected in the nation’s 1.3 billion population.

More than 12.6 million people have been struck down with COVID-19 and the new wave has put it third, behind the US and Brazil, among the countries hardest hit by the virus.

With India’s overcrowding, poverty and insufficient health system, the situation is expected to worsen.

India’s death toll stands at 165,132, the fourth highest total in the world.

RELATED: Where Australia’s missing 2.5 million vaccine doses are

Crowds continue to gather as infections surge

Politicians are still holding election rallies in different states attended by tens of thousands of people packed in and maskless.

The “double mutant” variant has been detected in more than 200 cases in one of the hardest hit states, Maharashtra in western India.

A throng of people pictured on a beach in the Maharashtran capital of Mumbai last weekend showed little to no social distancing.

Other images from Mumbai show crowds of locals packed into a huge food market.

India’s two approved vaccines, AstraZeneca and Covaxin, which was developed in Hyderabad’s Bharat Biotech laboratory, are effective against mutant variants from the UK and Brazil.

However health officials said the term “double mutant” referred to an entirely new variant that has the characteristics of two already identified strains.

India is ramping up its vaccination program in response to the rising infection numbers. Almost 80 million people have so far been immunised.

RELATED: Labor ramps up criticism over vaccine rollout

People not following ‘COVID-appropriate behaviour’

The extraordinary new surge led to Prime Minister Narendra Modi holding a high-level meeting of his pandemic team.

Dr Randeep Guleria of India’s pandemic task force said the new infectious virus variants combined with “the lack of appropriate COVID-19 behaviour, of not wearing masks, or keeping social distancing … is the cause of this sharp spike”.

Mr Modi tweeted he “reiterated the importance of the five-fold strategy of testing, tracing, treatment, COVID-appropriate behaviour, and vaccination as an effective way to fight the global pandemic”.

Scientists in Maharashtra are now working to see how the double strain may be more resistant to vaccines.

On Sunday, the state, which has a population of around 123 million, recorded its highest single daily case number of 57,704.

Authorities have now imposed restrictions until the end of the month, including a weekday curfew between 8pm and 7am and a complete weekend lockdown.

Schools, colleges, educational institutions, malls, spas, gymnasiums and restaurants will remain closed.

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Dr Jeannette Young says the man had the virus some time ago and has fully recovered.

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AEST = Australian Eastern Standard Time which is 10 hours ahead of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time)

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COVID-like virus called RSV runs rampant in Melbourne affecting children

As Victoria recorded a coronavirus milestone with no active cases, another virus is sweeping through Melbourne’s suburbs.

While it is nowhere near as serious as COVID-19, the virus is making life difficult for many families and can be dangerous for the young and elderly.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) produces a number of the same symptoms as the common cold, including respiratory distress, runny nose, cough and fever.

Mum Kellie Conlon said RSV left her three children in hospital, including her four-month-old daughter.

“They had her on high-flow oxygen and she was screaming for the entire night,” Conlon told 7NEWS.

“It was very traumatic. I honestly thought we were going to lose her.”

RSV is running rampant across Melbourne, largely due to social distancing for the past year weakening the immune system.

“Now that people, particularly kids, are back in circulation again so are the viruses that we normally see around winter time,” Dr Stephen Parnis from the University of Melbourne said.

The elderly are also at risk.

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Merkel Drops Easter Shutdown as Germany Flails Against Virus Surge

BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel scrapped an unpopular plan on Wednesday to shut down the German economy for two extra days over the Easter holidays, reversing her own policy as her government faces widespread anger over its chaotic moves to combat a resurgence of the coronavirus.

Her about-face came less than 36 hours after she had proposed declaring April 1 and 3 “off days,” to effectively extend the country’s Easter vacation to five consecutive days in hopes of halting a recent spike in infections

The suggestion — made after nearly 12 hours of deliberations between Ms. Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states that dragged into the early hours of Tuesday — was met with an almost immediate backlash, including sharp criticism from opposition politicians and a flood of complaints from a public worn out by a seemingly endless roller coaster of lockdowns and reopenings.

“It was a mistake,” the chancellor said, adding that the suggestion had been made with the best of intentions, aimed at slowing the B.1.1.7 variant, first discovered in Britain, which has been spreading through Germany. That spread has been aided by a sluggish vaccine rollout: Barely 10 percent of German adults have received their first shot, nearly three months after a vaccine developed by a German start-up, BioNTech, became the first in the world to receive approval.

But unlike a year ago, when the chancellor and the governors swiftly agreed to shutter the economy as the pandemic spread across Europe, the proposal to make the Thursday and Saturday before Easter into public holidays met with criticism from business leaders angry at the prospect of losing more revenue and German citizens angry at the idea they have to spend their spring holiday at home for the second year in a row.

“We have to succeed in slowing the spread of the third wave of the coronavirus,” the chancellor said, thanking all Germans who are following social distancing and masking rules.

This was the latest in a series of abrupt turns by Ms. Merkel’s government, after her health minister abruptly announced the country was halting vaccinations with AstraZeneca last week, only to reinstate them after the European drug regulator, the European Medicines Agency, cleared it for use.

Yet despite the confusion created by the suggestion of extending the holidays, some acknowledged that simply going back on the plan would do little to help the country slow the spread of the coronavirus. Germany saw 15,813 new infections on Wednesday, continuing a sharp rise over recent weeks.

“Instead of more protection against the third wave, we now have less!” said Janosch Dahmen, a medical doctor who serves as a lawmaker for the Greens, said on Twitter. “The extended break over Easter is now off the table. Even if it was half-baked, today’s decision made fight against the virus worse, even though it tried to make it better.”

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Global virus deaths again on the rise

A top World Health Organization coronavirus expert says the weekly global count of deaths is rising again, a “worrying sign” after about six weeks of declines.

Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead on COVID-19 at the UN health agency, said on Monday the growth followed a fifth straight week of confirmed cases increasing worldwide.

She said the number of reported cases went up in four of the WHO’s six regions, though there were significant variations within each.

“In the last week, cases have increased 8 per cent percent,” Van Kerkhove told reporters.

“In Europe, that is 12 per cent – and that’s driven by several countries.”

The increase is due in part to the spread of a variant that first emerged in Britain and is now circulating in many other places, including eastern Europe, she said.

Southeast Asia registered a 49 per cent week-to-week jump in confirmed cases, while WHO’s Western Pacific region reported a 29 per cent rise largely fuelled by the Philippines, Van Kerkhove said.

The eastern Mediterranean saw cases rise 8 per cent percent, while the number of cases reported in the Americas and Africa declined.

“I do want to mention that it had been about six weeks where we were seeing decreases in deaths,” said Van Kerkhove.

“And in the last week, we’ve started to see a slight increase in deaths across the world, and this is to be expected if we are to see increasing cases. But this is also a worrying sign.”

WHO emergencies chief Dr Michael Ryan acknowledged an urge among the public in many places to emerge from pandemic restrictions.

Ryan insisted any easing should coincide with measures such as strict case surveillance and high levels of vaccination but said vaccines alone would not be enough.

“I’m afraid we’re all trying to grasp at straws. We’re trying to find the golden solution: ‘So we just get enough vaccine and we push enough vaccine to people and that’s going to take care of it,”‘ he said. “I’m sorry, it’s not.”

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Respiratory syncytial virus and rhinovirus spread rampantly in Victoria

Victorians have been urged to get their flu vaccine as viruses spread rampantly in the state.

A number of people have been diagnosed with a bug called the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), as well as rhinovirus – similar to the common cold – sparking a surge in COVID-19 testing rates.

People with the viruses develop symptoms similar to COVID-19 such as a runny nose and a cough, driving up testing numbers to more than 21,000 over recent days.

Former Australian Medical Association president and Altona GP Dr Mukesh Haikerwal said the “debilitating” viruses were circulating in Melbourne.
“We’re getting a lot of a bug called RSV — respiratory syncytial virus — especially in kids and it makes them quite sick,” he told 3AW.
“It’s not as bad as the flu, but it’s another virus.
“The tests are being done because people are getting symptoms.
“And there’s rhinovirus, which is like the common cold … but it can be quite debilitating.”

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In Russia, a Virus Lockdown Targets the Opposition

MOSCOW — A Russian court has confined some of the country’s most prominent opposition figures to house arrest on accusations that they violated coronavirus safety rules, in what appears to be a government effort to use the restrictions to muzzle its opponents.

The legal action, known as a “sanitary case,” targets 10 opposition politicians and dissidents, including the senior leadership of Aleksei A. Navalny’s organization and members of the protest group Pussy Riot. All are accused of inciting others to violate rules introduced last spring to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Their lawyers have denied that they did.

Prosecutors say their social media posts promoting a protest in Moscow in January resulted in attendance by 19 people who were legally required to self-isolate because of positive Covid-19 tests, thus putting at risk others who attended.

Defense lawyers say the authorities are cynically twisting coronavirus rules to isolate people who pose no infection risk but are seen by the government as posing a political one.

“The ideological intent is to label opposition figures as infectious, as toxic, as poisoners of the public,” said Danil Berman, a lawyer for Maria Alyokhina, a member of Pussy Riot who was one of those targeted. Isolating key leaders before parliamentary elections scheduled for this year also hobbles the opposition, he said.

Many people around the world have complained that coronavirus restrictions have infringed on their freedoms as a byproduct of safety measures. But the Russian opposition members argue that the government is using the restrictions against them with the specific aim of curbing their liberty.

Online posts from the opposition figures promoting the protest did not specifically encourage people who were sick to attend, as the government charged, defense lawyers say. Lockdowns in Moscow had in any case been mostly lifted months earlier.

Also, the defense lawyers say, the rules are selectively enforced to restrict opposition activity while allowing pro-government events to go ahead with few restrictions, though the virus would spread as readily at either type of gathering.

Organizers of a series of pro-government rallies in January, at which employees gathered at their workplaces or in stadiums to cheer for President Vladimir V. Putin, faced no repercussions.

And selective enforcement has continued.

Regional authorities in Crimea, the peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine seven years ago, on Thursday lifted restrictions on mass gatherings to celebrate the anniversary of the takeover, an event that is politically beneficial to the Kremlin.

Aa few days earlier, the police rounded up about 200 opposition members of City Councils who had gathered for a conference in Moscow on Saturday, citing violations of mask rules.

The “sanitary case” is the highest-profile action so far. Among those charged are Mr. Navalny’s brother, a spokeswoman for his movement, and a political ally who intends to run for Parliament this year.

Most are forbidden to leave their homes even for walks, recalling the strictest lockdowns of the early phase of the virus response in Russia and some other countries, although restrictions have been mostly lifted for most Russian people.

On Thursday, a Moscow court extended house arrest for four of the defendants until June, and lawyers expect similar rulings for the rest of the group at a hearing on Friday.

Paradoxically, the opposition in Russia had tried to gain traction politically with criticism of Mr. Putin for not imposing stricter measures to control the virus and provide protective gear to medial workers.

That left them vulnerable to just such a crackdown, some observers noted.

“It’s that uncomfortable feeling when you yourself demanded lockdowns,” Aleksandr Kynev, a political commentator, wrote on Facebook. “Sanitary repression will sober you up.”

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Torres Strait communities fear worst-case scenario if virus spreads from PNG

Emergency measures blocking flights from Papua New Guinea have been introduced, but people in the Torres Strait fear what could happen if the virus jumps the border.

As the COVID-19 outbreak in PNG spread, the Mayor of the Torres Strait Regional Council, Philemon Mosby, said that if the situation wasn’t handled correctly it could be “catastrophic” for the Torres Strait community.

“An outbreak in our region would be certainly devastating. The majority of our communities are very small in population and we have significant numbers of elderly and vulnerable persons,” he told the ABC’s AM program.

PNG, Australia’s closest neighbour, is believed to have more than 1,400 active COVID-19 cases, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the suspension of flights from PNG would last at least two weeks.

Some Torres Strait Islands and their residents are just a few kilometres from PNG — a short dinghy trip away.

A special treaty allows villagers on these islands to travel back and forth between the Torres Strait and Papua New Guinea without visas, but the border has been shut since March 2020.

Councillor Mosby said he was still concerned by potential border crossings.

“We are certainly concerned [for] those islands that appear to be the frontier of the border,” he said.

Dr Marlow Coates, the northern director of medical services for the Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service, is based on Saibai Island and he said there were almost constant border patrols happening at the moment.

“There’s still Border Force ever-present on the island not far from where I’m sitting,” he said.

“Some officers are on 24-hour patrol at the moment and there’s a boat positioned off to the north of us with radar or interception and detection of vessels that may be coming across.

“It’s actually quite rare now to have somebody come across.”

But he said the risk of the virus crossing the border was still real.

“Ever-present is the danger at the moment of that pandemic reaching across the border to a vulnerable community like Saibai Island or the rest of the Torres Strait,” he said.

He said chronic illness combined with other issues to make the community particularly vulnerable to an outbreak.

“Overcrowding is a very big issue. There’s about 80 plus houses on this island with about 450 people living up here total, as you can imagine, the numbers and how that works out,” he said.

“It obviously raises concerns amongst the local population, but [also] for the rest of Australia, as well as a possible entry point [for the virus].”

Councillor Mosby said he wanted to make sure the federal government met with him before it even thought about re-opening the border.

“We understand as leaders of our region that from a global health council, they were talking about five years turnaround time, at least, for globalisation of vaccinations,” he said.

“So we are very mindful that it will take five years at least, and we don’t want to see the border open any sooner.”

He said that would include the islands in the treaty zone, which have special travel rights.

“That would include the border closure or would include obviously Torres Strait Islanders coming and going, so that would apply to the other side as well.”

Australia’s National Rural Health Commissioner Professor Ruth Stewart lives on Thursday Island, at the southern end of the Torres Strait.

She said protecting remote communities from a viral spread from PNG was a particular concern.

“Our current problem is that there are increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in Papua New Guinea and we are trying to protect the Australian rural and remote communities, it’s a serious problem,” she said.

She said the vaccination rollout, which began in the northern Torres Strait this week, was essential to keeping the community safe.

“The message that I would like to get out to everybody that I possibly can is COVID-19 vaccines that we have available in Australia are safe that it is much safer to be vaccinated against COVID-19 than to run the risk of ever getting COVID-19 yourself,” she said.

But, Councillor Mosby said some residents had doubts after reports that some European countries had paused rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

“Given the recent reports through the media about the European countries backing out or taking a pause on it, and also the opinions that we are hearing directly from Canberra about [MPs] having divided opinions on this, it has certainly raised alarms and is affecting the confidence of our people wanting to be vaccinated,” he said.

For now, Councillor Mosby is urging Torres Strait Islanders to check with Queensland health officials before making up their minds.

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Coronavirus: From ‘COVID toes’ to ‘COVID tongues,’ new virus symptoms of continue to emerge

The list of possible COVID-19 symptoms continues to grow.

“COVID tongue,” or symptoms characterized by irritations and lesions in the mouth and tongue, have been causing concern for researchers, as well as “COVID toes,” which are characterized by rashes and inflammation in the toes and feet.

Last September, a study conducted in Spain involving 666 COVID-19 patients found that 78 participants, or 25.7 per cent, developed lesions on their tongues. Most patients reported a reduction in taste sensation, but 5.3 per cent reported a burning sensation.

The study also found that 121, or 39.8 per cent, patients developed irritations on their palms and soles of their feet.

Dr. Douglas Fraser is a professor at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and a pediatric critical care physician at London Health Sciences Centre in London, Ont. He said that the tongue has a high concentration of ACE receptors, which are the receptors that the SARS-CoV-2 virus binds to.

“That causes the virus to be taken up into those cells. In the tongue, you have potential for a high amount of virus, which would create a localized inflammatory effect, and hence, you would start to have some of these red lesions, potentially,” Fraser told in a phone interview on Monday.

In January, a tweet from British COVID-19 researcher Tim Spector gained global media attention after he began noticing more patients with tongue lesions.

“Seeing increasing numbers of Covid tongues and strange mouth ulcers. If you have a strange symptom or even just headache and fatigue stay at home!” Spector tweeted.

Fraser says that reports of COVID tongue symptoms are “relatively rare,” although COVID toes tend to be more common in young people, something he’s observed in his own research.

“In general, they’re more common in younger people, children, teenagers, young adults, particularly the toes,” said Fraser.

Another study from Spain published last July found evidence supporting a link between COVID-19 and lesions on the toes. A majority of the 375 participants in that study had tested negative for the virus through throat swabs and didn’t exhibit any other symptoms, but the virus was detected in sweat glands and the walls of the skin’s blood vessels.

Fraser is also the lead author of a Canadian study that was the first to describe endothelial injuries affecting critically ill COVID-19 patients. Endothelial injuries refer to injuries affecting the cells that line the blood vessels.

“(COVID-19) creates an inflammatory effect, then damages what we call the endothelial cells, which line the blood vessels. And along with that injury to the blood vessel, you’re much more likely to have clotting or blood clotting,” said Fraser.

This blood clotting can then result in lesions on the toes.

“When you have all this clotting going on, it can go to places where the blood vessels are very small, and like the toes and the end of the fingers and the tongue. So, you get the blood vessels are not only sick there, but you can also get little clots developing,” Fraser explained. “So, some of these lesions, particularly on the toes, are related to blood vessels that are inflamed and angry and clotting.”

“If the clots occur in the venous system, then you can actually get a backup of pressure to get swelling and redness.”

In rare cases, children who contract COVID-19 can also be susceptible to multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C, which causes inflammation in numerous parts of the body and resembles Kawasaki disease, another blood vessel inflammation disease.

“If you get MIS-C in kids, it’s really just a blood vessel injury. They don’t necessarily show up with terrible pneumonia in the lungs, but instead they’ll show up with all sorts of different organs involved. And they may have COVID toes, which is from the blood vessels being angry and sick,” Fraser said.

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NSW awaits hotel guard’s virus genome test

NSW health authorities are scrambling to confirm the source of a new COVID-19 infection in a vaccinated Sydney hotel quarantine worker.

The 47-year-old man worked at both the Sofitel Wentworth and Mantra at Haymarket hotels in inner Sydney and had already received his first Pfizer jab.

The source of the security guard’s infection remains unclear, with all four of his family contacts testing negative so far.

NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said a “working hypothesis” was the man picked up the virus from an infected traveller while working at the Sofitel overnight on March 6.

“The genomics is being done urgently and we are expecting that … very late into the evening or early tomorrow morning,” she told reporters on Sunday.

The end of the state’s 55-day COVID-free streak prompted the opposition to renew calls for the government to ensure that all hotel quarantine security guards were employed full-time so they did not have to work across multiple venues.

“Securing our quarantine hotels shouldn’t be a part-time job. The role security guards play in hotel quarantine is too important,” Labor health spokesman Ryan Park said.

“It’s no good building a fortress if we end up leaving the back door open. Hotel quarantine is meant to be a bubble. It’s not going to be effective if guards are forced to take other roles in other parts of Sydney to make ends meet,” he said on Monday.

Meanwhile, a number of venues across the city have been listed as potential exposure sites and 130 close contacts have been asked to self-isolate after working an overnight shift with the man at the Mantra Hotel on Friday.

Dr Chant warned that the Pfizer jab would not provide protection against COVID-19 for at least 12 days after a person was injected.

Having received his first vaccine shot on March 2, the guard’s second dose was due to be administered in about a week.

His positive test result was recorded after 8pm on Saturday and will be included in Monday’s tally, ending the state’s 56-day streak without a locally acquired COVID-19 case.

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