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COVID-19 Around the World

New Omicron variant XE of concern



There is growing COVID-19 concern in China after authorities discovered a new subtype of the Omicron variant.

Health officials in Suzhou, just west of Shanghai, detected the mutation of the Omicron variant not found in local or international databases, according to reports from state press agency Xinhua on Sunday.

“This means a new variant of Omicron has been discovered locally,” Xinhua said, citing health official Zhang Jun, deputy director of the Suzhou Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

The mutation has evolved from the BA.1.1 branch of the Omicron variant, according to the Global Times, citing sequencing data from local health authorities.

It claims the newly-discovered subtype doesn’t match any other coronavirus submitted to GISAID, the database used globally by scientists to share information on new virus mutations.

The report said the subtype doesn’t match the other coronavirus that’s causing COVID-19 in China nor those submitted to GISAID, where scientists around the world share the coronavirus strains they have sequenced as a way to monitor mutations.

Cause for concern?

Experts say stopping the next major coronavirus variant involves knowing where it might come from.

However, with Omicron, those answers are still a mystery: How did a variant that looked so different from all its older cousins appear so suddenly?

“When that virus sequence first started to emerge, it was really hard for me to fathom that that would take off,” Emory University virologist Mehul Suthar said.

Viruses change all the time, often in ways that actually hurt their chances at survival.

But once in a while, those mutations can work out in the virus’ favour.

Sarah Cobey, associate professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, explained in an op-ed in the New York Times this week that the coronavirus’ transmissibility will hit a ceiling – eventually.

However, it probably won’t stop evolving in ways that skirt our immune response.

“Before Omicron, I think most people in the field would say that we would see immune escape through the accumulation of these mutations one by one,” Dr Cobey told CNN.

Cases surge in Australia

Meanwhile, more than half a million Australians are currently dealing with COVID-19 infections as authorities begin to roll out a second booster for vulnerable groups.

The number of active cases has climbed above the 500,000 mark for the first time since late-January, when the initial Omicron wave receded.

Around one in five PCR tests are coming back positive in Western Australia which is still in the midst of its first major outbreak.

Experts say a fourth jab will be critical in the effort to protect at-risk Australians ahead of winter, with a surge in cases of the virus and influenza looming.

People aged 65 and older, Indigenous Australians aged at least 50, disability care residents and the immunocompromised are among those receiving their fourth dose from Monday.

An estimated 4.7 million people will be eligible to get a fourth dose but it is expected fewer than 200,000 will meet requirements at the start of the rollout.

People can have a second booster shot four months after receiving their first.

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee expects an infection peak will hit in mid-April in several jurisdictions.

Comprised of chief health officers from across the country, the group says it is considering recommending the removal of quarantine for COVID-19 close contacts.

It says isolation could be replaced by frequent rapid antigen testing, mask wearing outside the house and limiting access of close contacts to high-risk settings.

More than 47,000 new COVID-19 infections and 17 virus-related deaths were reported across the country on Sunday.

Almost 2600 patients are being cared for in hospital wards, 103 of them in intensive care.

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COVID-19 Around the World

14.9 million excess deaths with Covid-19



New estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) show that the full death toll associated directly or indirectly with the COVID-19 pandemic (described as “excess mortality”) between 1 January 2020 and 31 December 2021 was approximately 14.9 million (range 13.3 million to 16.6 million).  

Excess mortality is calculated as the difference between the number of deaths that have occurred and the number that would be expected in the absence of the pandemic based on data from earlier years. 

Excess mortality includes deaths associated with COVID-19 directly (due to the disease) or indirectly (due to the pandemic’s impact on health systems and society). Deaths linked indirectly to COVID-19 are attributable to other health conditions for which people were unable to access prevention and treatment because health systems were overburdened by the pandemic. The estimated number of excess deaths can be influenced also by deaths averted during the pandemic due to lower risks of certain events, like motor-vehicle accidents or occupational injuries. 


Most of the excess deaths (84%) are concentrated in South-East Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Some 68% of excess deaths are concentrated in just 10 countries globally. Middle-income countries account for 81% of the 14.9 million excess deaths (53% in lower-middle-income countries and 28% in upper-middle-income countries) over the 24-month period, with high-income and low-income countries each accounting for 15% and 4%, respectively. 


The estimates for a 24-month period (2020 and 2021) include a breakdown of excess mortality by age and sex. They confirm that the global death toll was higher for men than for women (57% male, 43% female) and higher among older adults. The absolute count of the excess deaths is affected by the population size. The number of excess deaths per 100,000 gives a more objective picture of the pandemic than reported COVID-19 mortality data.

“Measurement of excess mortality is an essential component to understand the impact of the pandemic. Shifts in mortality trends provide decision-makers information to guide policies to reduce mortality and effectively prevent future crises. Because of limited investments in data systems in many countries, the true extent of excess mortality often remains hidden,” said Dr Samira Asma, Assistant Director-General for Data, Analytics and Delivery at WHO. “These new estimates use the best available data and have been produced using a robust methodology and a completely transparent approach.”


“Data is the foundation of our work every day to promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable. We know where the data gaps are, and we must collectively intensify our support to countries, so that every country has the capability to track outbreaks in real-time, ensure delivery of essential health services, and safeguard population health,” said Dr Ibrahima Socé Fall, Assistant Director-General for Emergency Response. 

The production of these estimates is a result of a global collaboration supported by the work of the Technical Advisory Group for COVID-19 Mortality Assessment and country consultations. 


This methodology has been invaluable as many countries still lack capacity for reliable mortality surveillance and therefore do not collect and generate the data needed to calculate excess mortality. Using the publicly available methodology, countries can use their own data to generate or update their own estimates.

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COVID-19 Around the World

Weekly news at a glance



(Worldwide) North Korea reports more COVID deaths

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un blasted officials over slow medicine deliveries and ordered his military to respond to the surging but largely undiagnosed COVID-19 crisis that has left 1.2 million people ill with fever and 50 dead in a matter of days, state media said Monday.

State media didn’t specify how many were confirmed as COVID-19, but North Korea is believed to lack sufficient testing supplies to confirm coronavirus infections in large numbers and is mostly relying on isolating people with symptoms at shelters.

Failing to slow the virus could have dire consequences for North Korea, considering its broken health care system and that its 26 million people are believed to be unvaccinated, with malnourishment and other conditions of poverty.


(Worldwide) U.S. licenses key Covid vaccine technology to WHO

President Joe Biden on Thursday said the U.S. has licensed a key technology used in the current Covid-19 vaccines to the World Health Organization, which would allow manufacturers around the world to work with the global health agency to develop their own shots against the virus.

The decision to share the vaccine technology comes ahead of a virtual global Covid-19 summit that the U.S. is co-hosting Thursday. The WHO, in a statement, said the license would make the crucial technology accessible to people in low- and middle-income countries and help end the pandemic.


(Worldwide) China’s retail sales lowest in two years 

China’s retail sales slumped to its lowest in over two years while factory output plunged, official data showed Monday, capturing the dismal economic fallout from Beijing’s zero-Covid policy.

The world’s second-largest economy has persisted with strict virus measures, choking up supply chains as dozens of Chinese cities — including key business hub Shanghai — grapple with restrictions.

Officials have vowed to support growth, lowering the mortgage rate for first-time homebuyers and announcing Shanghai’s gradual reopening last weekend but observers warn the zero-Covid strategy could mute any positive impact.


(AUS) Supporting Strong Multicultural Communities

The Victorian government has announced a new round of grants to help multicultural community organisations upgrade their facilities. The Multicultural Community Infrastructure Fund will provide grants of up to half a million dollars to organisations to help build or upgrade their facility needs. 

Community organisations provide safe and secure places for culturally diverse and multilingual Victorians to engage in traditional celebrations, religious events and help foster connections. This round of grants will be providing four and a half million dollars as announced in the Victorian Budget and grants will open soon. 


(AUS) Cold weather likely behind waning COVID immunity

Health experts say that changing weather is one of several factors behind rising COVID case numbers. University of Melbourne epidemiologist Nancy Baxter says that the relaxing of restrictions combined with the weather getting colder, is seeing more people are socialising indoors increasing the transmissibility of the virus.

Professor Baxter said waning immunity was another key factor. She noted that while there is some level of immunity after having COVID for up to three months, that immunity will wane, and those who tested positive during the Omicron wave at Christmas are now at risk again. People that got boosted had protection from transmission close to Christmas time, but the protection from transmission does wane or decrease faster than the protection from serious illness or death.


(AUS) Australian COVID numbers hit worldwide high

Australia has recorded the highest number of COVID cases per capita worldwide in the past week, with experts predicting another wave of Omicron.  

According to global data base, Our World in Data, this past week saw Australia rank only below Germany and the US for daily cases recorded, and came out on top as the country with the most cases per capita.

According to University of Melbourne epidemiologist Nancy Baxter, the numbers may get worse and a new variant of Omicron could already be further complicating the COVID situation. 

Omicron caused a considerable fluctuation in case numbers at the start of the year, peaking in January with tens of thousands of cases per day in Victoria alone.

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COVID-19 Around the World

Covid pandemic disappears in Federal Election?



As the nation gets ready to cast its vote in the federal election, the number one issue that has affected Australians over the last term of government is no longer front of mind for many of us. But as life returns to normal in Australia, the impact of the pandemic lives on for many.

From labour force shortages to the economy and health care, COVID-19 has created boons and wounds across the country — and these have shaped what people now need from their leaders. So as we move into an era of living with the virus, how has it changed what people think, feel and need from the federal government?

Vulnerable people ‘seen as collateral’

According to Vote Compass data, just 1 per cent of Australians think COVID is the most important issue this election.

But while many have already moved on, the virus is still front of mind for Adelaide woman Belle Owen. As COVID restrictions ease around Australia and masks come off, Ms Owen is doubling down every time she leaves the house. Living with a disability, she is considered vulnerable to the virus and the decision to just leave the house comes with a pressing question.

“I’m really hoping that, when the election is settled and we have a government formed, they can go away and get a group of people together who have that lived experience, and work with [the disability] community to prioritise community safety,” she said.


Spotlight on good economic management

While the impacts of the coronavirus were brutal for many, for others it has shown what works well. WA was the last state in the country to open its borders to the virus. The decision meant total deaths and hospitalisations from COVID-19 have remained comparatively low. And behind the state’s closed border, many businesses were riding high.

Inside Mike Bonomelli’s sheet metal business, Melbon, staff have been kept busy by a 30 per cent increase in business. With the iron ore price high and interest rates low amid a strong economy, Mr Bonomelli took on 10 new staff during the pandemic.  The government’s asset write-offs also allowed him to refit his factory with new equipment worth $3 million. Foreseeing a labour force issue, Mr Bonomelli approached the Perth Karen community and took on five new apprentices and 10 new staff in total. 

But labour is still an issue. “I really need the government to have some incentive to fast forward international people coming here on some sort of visa, and cutting the red tape to bring in the trades that we need.” Mr Bonomelli said the last two years have demonstrated the benefits a strong economy and swift decision-making can bring. And looking ahead to the federal election, he wants more of that.


COVID’s labour shortage hangover

Not all people in WA have reaped the rewards of WA’s hard border.

For Jen Bird and James Weeding, who operate the family-owned 4WD tourism company Kimberley Wild, it has been brutal. The business helps to showcase sights including Broome, the Bungle Bungles and Motchell Plateau. Ninety per cent of their visitors come from outside WA. 

“We’ve been very lucky in WA from a day-to-day life point of view we’ve been COVID-free,” said Ms Bird. “However, with a business that depends so much on interstate and international travel, it’s been tough.” “And as a seasonal business, we do employ a lot of backpackers, and I think that will be a big challenge this year.”

“I would like to see, personally, from the federal government with tourism, perhaps some policies and ideas that stretch beyond a three-year term,” Mr Weeding said. “And the things that affect tourism, like climate and the environment,” Ms Bird said.


The pandemic in the rear-view mirror

But they are also ready to move on from COVID, just like Adelaide hairdresser Ali Lucia. As restrictions ease across South Australia, the immediate impacts of COVID are becoming less of a worry for Ms Lucia.

She said she was glad to see the end of close contact rules, as they had affected not only her clients but herself too. But she considers herself one of the lucky ones, keeping her job and now taking on her first mortgage for a brand new home.

With that her focus, she said she was now ready to move past the pandemic, and it would not be a big factor in how she votes.

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