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COVID-19 WATCH

Grand Canyon closed to public over coronavirus

Agence France-Presse

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The Grand Canyon was closed to visitors with immediate effect Wednesday, making the Arizona landmark visited by millions each year the latest tourist hotspot to shut over the coronavirus pandemic.

The closure follows several warnings in recent days by county officials and Navajo Native American leaders over crowds continuing to gather at the natural wonder.

Arizona congressman Raul Grijalva said hundreds of visitors were staying in the Grand Canyon Park despite officials instructions to avoid gatherings of 10 or more people.

The National Park Service has so far avoided a blanket closure of its 419 sites across the United States, preferring to assess each on a case-by-case basis.

“As soon as we received the letter from the Health and Human Services Director and Chief Health Officer for Coconino County recommending the closure of Grand Canyon National Park, we closed the park,” said US Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in a statement.

More than 80 cases of coronavirus have been reported in Coconino County, including at least one inside Grand Canyon Park.

Wyoming’s Yellowstone, and both Joshua Tree and Yosemite in California, are among national parks which have already closed.

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COVID-19 WATCH

Vaccines available in second quarter of 2021

MJ Blancaflor

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Health officials remain hopeful that vaccines against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) would be available in the Philippines in the second quarter of 2021.

In a media forum Friday, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Director General Eric Domingo said his agency might approve the wide use of anti-COVID vaccines next year if manufacturers would finish the last phase of their clinical trials by the end of 2020.

“The best case scenario is if clinical trials are completed by December or January and a company would file with the FDA an application, then its possible that by April 2021 we will have an approved vaccine,” Domingo told reporters.

“That’s a best case scenario assuming they will complete their analysis and submit it immediately to the FDA,” he added.

Potential vaccines should be approved by the FDA before they can be sold. The registration process might last from 45 to 60 days.

In the same forum, Science and Technology Secretary Fortunato de la Peña also expressed optimism that COVID-19 vaccines might be available next year since the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Solidarity Trial in the Philippines would likely start in December.

He noted that vaccine trials might range from three to six months.

De la Peña also said the country would likely identify the individuals who would take part in the trials by October, after the WHO distributes the vaccines and outlines its protocols for participating countries.

The Philippines is in talks with various foreign pharmaceutical companies for potential anti-COVID vaccines.

So far, the government has signed six confidentiality agreements with Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute; China’s Sinovac, Sinopharm, and ZFSW; Australia’s University of Queensland; and Taiwan’s Addimune.

The agreements would allow local experts to look at the results of their Phase I and II trials to determine if it is safe to test on Filipinos.

These manufacturers — except China’s Sinopharm — are interested to conduct the final phase of their trials in the Philippines.

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17 hospitals administer plasma treatments

Gabbie Parlade

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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Friday disclosed that 17 hospitals with approved protocols are already registered to give convalescent plasma for COVID-19 patients in the country.

FDA Director-General Eric Domingo said that a total of 526 patients have so far been administered with the treatment where 429 have recovered.

Convalescent plasma therapy is one of the studied remedies for the coronavirus disease which uses the antibodies gathered from past patients who have been treated.

Philippine Blood Center Officer-in-Charge Dr. Pedrito Tagayunan earlier said that the process is done by separating the red blood cells and the plasma of the donated blood from a previous COVID positive patient.

“In the plasma we will find the IGG, IGM or the antibodies where if the patient or donor is in its convalescence, then a majority of it will have the IGG,” he said.

Individuals are initially screened to determine whether their condition and blood will be fit for the plasma donation.

However, Domingo said that despite positive results so far gathered, a more in-depth scientific analysis of the treatment is needed to prove on which patient it will be most applicable.

“The treatment looks good but of course the scientific studies will have to be done because the status of patients vary even if the protocols are all the same,” he said.

This is why a clinical trial has been already approved to study more on its possible treatment.

“(We) approved one clinical trial for convalescent plasma that has more structured protocols which will be more objective in its analysis and once we get a more detailed and objective result we’ll be able to share that with the public,” he said.

To date, the coronavirus cases in the Philippines has gone up to more than 296,000 as the country ranks in the 21st spot worldwide tallying at 32 million infected individuals.

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Go calls for compassion, solidarity

TDT

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SENATOR Christopher Lawrence ‘Bong’ Go PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF SBG

Senator Christopher “Bong” Go has called for compassion and solidarity amid the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Go made the call during a video call on Tuesday while his staff were delivering essential to some resident at the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) regional office in Cebu City.

He encouraged communities to show compassion for the poor and vulnerable sectors and extend any form of assistance to their neighbors who may be going through tough times as a result of the crisis.

“Let’s help one another. We can do this! Who else will help us but ourselves,” he said in vernacular.

Go reiterated his vow that the poor will get priority for vaccination against the coronavirus.

“Let’s just wait until the vaccine is available, the poor will be the first to be vaccinated so that they can return to their normal lives,” he said.

He added that it is the wish of President Rodrigo Duterte for lives to return to the old normal where Filipinos can hug each other.

Go said he sent his staff to Cebu after learning that some residents failed to get their share if the social amelioration program.

“There is a program that provides immediate cash and food pack so we coordinated with the Department of Social Welfare and Development,” he said.

Forty-seven beneficiaries were provided with meals, food packs, and vitamins. They were also given medical-grade and reusable masks and face shields to encourage everyone to do their part to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

In addition, select residents from the poorest sections of the community were gifted with bicycles so they can commute to work.

Representatives from the DSWD also handed cash aid and additional food packs to the residents through its AICS program.

The event was held in compliance with the necessary guidelines for outdoor gatherings.

As chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Go reminded everyone of the importance of following health and safety rules and protocols to keep themselves and everyone else safe.

“Wear masks, face shields, observe social distancing and avoid getting out of their houses if not necessary. Always wash your hands. I also sent medicines,” the senator told the beneficiaries.

He offered assistance to beneficiaries who need medical treatment.

Go urged others to visit any of the five Malasakit Centers in the province: Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center and St. Anthony Mother and Child Hospital in Cebu City, Lapu-Lapu City District Hospital in Lapu-Lapu City, Eversley Childs Sanitarium and General Hospital in Mandaue City, and Talisay District Hospital in Talisay City.

The Malasakit center is a one-stop shop wherein people may directly apply for medical and financial assistance from various government agencies, namely the DSWD, Department of Health, Philippine Health Insurance Corporation and Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office.

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FDA identifies groups selling fake medicines

Gabbie Parlade

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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Friday revealed that the agency has identified several groups selling the fake version of an approved Chinese traditional herbal medicine in the country.

FDA Director General Dr. Eric Domingo said the establishments where the fake Lian Hua Qin Weng were sold were mostly located in Metro Manila and in Central Luzon.

“They’re numerous. We’ve been working with NBI (National Bureau of Investigation) and the PNP (Philippine National Police) and we’ve actually raided several establishments here in Metro Manila and in Region 3,” he said.

Domingo said that the products have already been confiscated as charges against the violators are still pending.

In August, the FDA approved the use of the Lianhua Qingwen but not as a treatment for COVID-19.

In its product registration, the medication was noted as a “traditionally used herbal product [which] helps remove heat-toxin invasion of the lungs, including symptoms such as fever, aversion to cold, muscle soreness, stuffy and runny nose.”

On the other hand, the Chinese Embassy in Manila earlier said that the drug is used in China to treat mild to moderate patients of the coronavirus disease.

Nonetheless, the envoy warned the public to only buy traditional Chinese medicines produced by qualified pharmaceutical manufacturers.

At present, the Philippines has recorded over 296,000 cases of COVID-19 topping the list of countries in the Western Pacific region with the most number of infections while also surpassing China — the epicenter of the disease.

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Samar bars LSI’s return

Elmer Recuerdo

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TACLOBAN CITY — The Samar provincial Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) has approved a resolution extending the moratorium on the return of locally stranded individuals (LSI) to two cities and 13 municipalities of the province for 14 days.

The provincial IATF announced the extension of the moratorium for the return of LSI right on the day that the month-long ban on travel of LSI ended last 24 September.

The new moratorium started last 25 September and will end on 8 October. This is an extension of the province-wide moratorium on LSI return that was implemented from 25 August to 24 September.

Covered by the extended moratorium on LSI are the cities of Catbalogan and Calbayog, and the towns of Almagro, Basey, Calbiga, Gandara, Hinabangan, Jiabong, Motiong, Paranas, Pinabacdao, Sta. Rita, Tagapul-an, Talalora and Villareal. Samar province covers two cities and 24 municipalities.

The announcement was met with criticisms from LSI who have been wanting to come home for months now and have already booked tickets for their trips home.

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17 manufacturers want to hold Phl clinical trials

Gabbie Parlade

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As countries grapple for a solution to the coronavirus disease, the Department of Science and Technology (DoST) on Friday revealed that 17 vaccine manufacturers have been interested to be the Philippines’ bilateral partner on the COVID-19 vaccine development.

DoST Secretary Fortunato De la Peña said it includes international manufacturers coming from China, Russia, the United States, India, Canada, Taiwan and Australia.

Out of these developers, six have already signed a confidentiality data agreement (CDA) which signified their interest in pushing for a local trial.

“Because of their interest to conduct clinical trial in the Philippines, they’re willing to show us their data and information on the results of their trials in their country, particularly in the phases that have already been completed,” he told reporters.

It includes Russia’s Gamaleya Research Insititute, Austrialia’s University of Queensland, Taiwan’s Adimmune and three from China — Sinovac, Sinopharm and the ZSFW Biologics Company.

Aside from these manufacturers, the Philippines is also part of the World Health Organization Solidarity trial for vaccines which will involves a wider range of qualified candidates.

In estimate, De la Peña said that once a finalized list has already been provided the trial is eyed to start by the last quarter of this year.

He said that ultimately it is expected to last for three to six months as the earliest seen forecast for the release of vaccines may probably be by April of next year.

Based on the zoning guidelines, the volunteers for the trial will be selected among five to 10 barangays with the highest reported number of COVID-19 cases.

Although the WHO solidarity trial will be prioritized due to the country’s existing commitment, De la Peña assured that independent trials will not be deprived of proper sites.

He said that as mandated only one vaccine trial is allowed per area.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said that in discussion with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), they vowed that a prioritized lane has been allotted for the approval of local trials in order to fast track the process.

FDA Director-General Eric Domingo said based on their projection, a WHO pre-qualified vaccine will take up to a maximum of 60 days for it to be evaluated before distribution.

But he said that if the vaccine has a FDA counterpart in its respective countries, the review of the vaccine may be shortened to only up to 45 days.

Meanwhile on other treatment ventures, the Department of Health (DoH) said that it is still awaiting for finalized documents on the clinical trial agreement for the Avigan trials.

Reports have shown that the Japan-made antiviral drug has so far shown a positive feedback in its third phase of the clinical trial where it was said that patients with mild symptoms acquired a reduced amount of recovery time.

Vergeire said that at present, the documents are with the chancellor of the University of the Philippines — Philippine General Hospital — which is considered as one of the possible sites — for its reviewal and final signatories.

The other eyed trial centers also include Dr. Jose N. Rodriguez Memorial Medical Center, Sta. Ana Hospital, and the Quirino Memorial and Medical Center.

Since it has already undergone the approval of the FDA, she said that the trials may start once all documents have already been submitted.

To date, the Philippines has tallied over 296,000 cases of COVID-19 with more than 231,000 recoveries and a death toll reaching 5,000.

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Rio postpones world-famous carnival over COVID-19

Agence France-Presse

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Members of the Viradouro samba school perform during the first night of Rio's carnival parade at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (AFP)

Rio de Janeiro’s world-famous carnival parades became the latest casualty of the coronavirus pandemic Thursday as officials announced they were indefinitely postponing the February 2021 edition, with Brazil still reeling from COVID-19.

Rio’s carnival, the world’s biggest, is an epidemiologist’s nightmare in a pandemic: an extended festival of tightly packed crowds dancing through the streets and flocking to the city’s iconic “Sambadrome” for massive parades featuring scantily clad dancers, small armies of drummers and all-night partying at close quarters.

The event draws millions of tourists from around Brazil and the world to the beachside city each year.

Rio’s elite samba schools, which typically spend the entire year preparing their elaborate parades, had said in July it would be difficult to organize the event for February 2021 if there were still no certainty of a vaccine for the new coronavirus by late September.

Meeting again to assess the situation, “we came to the conclusion that the event had to be postponed,” said Jorge Castanheira, the president of the group that organizes the annual parades, the Independent League of Samba Schools of Rio de Janeiro (LIESA).

“We just can’t do it in February. The samba schools won’t have the time or financial and organizational resources to be ready,” he told journalists after a plenary meeting by the group’s directors.

“It’s not a cancellation, it’s a postponement. We are looking for an alternative solution, something we can do when it’s safe to contribute to the city…. But we aren’t certain enough to set a date.”

First postponement since 1912

It is the first time in more than a century that carnival has been postponed in Rio.

The last time was in 1912, after the death of long-time foreign minister Jose Maria da Silva Paranhos Junior.

The late foreign minister is reported to have once said: “Only two things exist in Brazil which are really organized: disorder and carnival.”

The year he died, carnival was officially pushed back by two months, though in the event Rio residents reportedly took advantage of the occasion to party in both February and April that year.

In reality, “carnival” comprises numerous events, from the elite samba school parade contest organized by LIESA to less-formal “blocos,” or street parties.

LIESA’s announcement applies only to the samba school competition. City authorities have not yet announced whether “blocos” and other events will be allowed.

Speculation had been mounting that authorities would have to cancel or postpone carnival in 2021, given that Brazil is the country with the second-highest death toll in the pandemic, after the United States, and is still struggling to bring the virus under control.

Brazil has registered 4.7 million infections and nearly 140,000 deaths from Covid-19.

And while the spread of the virus has slowed somewhat since its July peak, the numbers are still alarmingly high in Brazil, with an average of nearly 30,000 new cases and 735 new deaths per day over the past two weeks, according to health ministry figures.

Brazil has struggled to set a cohesive policy to deal with the pandemic.

Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has railed against lockdown measures as a catastrophe for the economy, and downplayed the disease as a “little flu,” despite being forced into quarantine for nearly three weeks when he caught it himself in July.

Rio de Janeiro has been the state hit second-hardest in Brazil, after Sao Paulo, the country’s industrial hub.

With 18,000 people killed so far, if Rio state were a country, it would have the world’s second-highest mortality rate from Covid-19, at 104 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants.

Rio had already announced in July it was canceling its famous New Year’s Eve celebrations on Copacabana beach this year.

Tourism officials say they are seeking alternative celebrations that would be compatible with social distancing guidelines.

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J&J vaccine trial nears late stage

Agence France-Presse

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WASHINGTON (AFP) — Johnson & Johnson said Wednesday it was entering the final Phase 3 stage of its Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial following positive results in earlier stages.

The trial will seek to enroll up to 60,000 volunteers across more than 200 sites in the US and around the world, the company and the US National Institutes for Health (NIH), which is providing funding, said.

With the move, J&J becomes the tenth maker globally to conduct a Phase 3 trial against Covid-19, and the fourth in the US.

The company, which is developing the vaccine on a not-for-profit basis through its subsidiary Janssen, said it anticipated the drug would be ready for emergency approval by early 2021 if proven safe and effective.

“As COVID-19 continues to impact the daily lives of people around the world, our goal remains the same — leveraging the global reach and scientific innovation of our company to help bring an end to this pandemic,” said Alex Gorsky, the company’s chairman and CEO.

Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, added: “Four COVID-19 vaccine candidates are in Phase 3 clinical testing in the United States just over eight months after SARS-CoV-2 was identified.”

“This is an unprecedented feat for the scientific community made possible by decades of progress in vaccine technology and a coordinated, strategic approach across government, industry and academia.”

The US has given J&J about $1.45 billion in funding under Operation Warp Speed.

The vaccine is based on a single dose of a cold-causing adenovirus, modified so that it can no longer replicate, combined with a part of the new coronavirus called the spike protein that it uses to invade human cells.

J&J used the same technology in its Ebola vaccine which received marketing approval from the European Commission in July.

The company said it was poised to imminently publish the results from an earlier stage of the trial on a medical preprint site.

Pre-clinical testing on rhesus macaque monkeys that were published in the journal Nature showed it provided complete or near-complete protection against virus infection in the lungs and nose.

Like several other Phase 3 trials that are underway, its primary objective is to test whether the vaccine can prevent symptomatic Covid-19.

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Surge in critical cases probed

Gabbie Parlade

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The Department of Health (DoH) on Thursday disclosed that it will be looking into the sudden increase in the number of reported critical cases in the country.

This came after a tallied surge in percentage was noticed from initially being at 0.3 percent to rising into around three percent in the past weeks.

Health Undersecretary Leopoldo Vega said they were also surprised by the growth of cases but noted that as of now investigation on the matter is still ongoing.

He said that all data especially from local government units are being reviewed as critical care units in Metro Manila are seen to be at a stabilized level.

“We’re validating that now in all of our critical care units, intensive care units because here in Metro Manila as you can see there is adequate critical care beds and it’s not yet strained so we’re also trying to find out what were the reasons behind the increase of the percentage point, he said in a briefing.

“In fact, our regional directors and surveillance are looking at the number of critical patients in private and public hospitals to validate,” he added.

But Vega assured that the increase is now cause for alarm as all operations are now focused at making sure that the national health system will not be overwhelmed.

As of the current statistics from the DoH, the critical care utilization rate nationwide lies between 51 percent to 43 percent in the beds dedicated for isolation, ward, and intensive care units while the use of ventilators is only at 26 percent.

On the other hand, Metro Manila — the epicenter of the virus in the country — has an occupancy rate in its critical units beds ranging from 65 percent to 54 percent as 39 percent of the ventilators are utilized.

Vega also stressed that ideally if more relaxed protocols under the modified general community quarantine (MGCQ) will be pushed, the critical care utilization rate should be at least lower than 60 percent.

This is to make sure that the health system will be able to accommodate patients should there be a surge of cases.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Philippines has tallied over 294,000 cases of COVID-19 where Metro Manila at 156,889 still has the highest number of infections among regions.

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