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How Can We Stop the Next Pandemic? We Asked an Epidemiologist

Scanning sewage for disease threats, vaccine safety, and the true origins of COVID-19. We discuss all these topics and more with Dr. David N. Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto.

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Scanning sewage for disease threats, vaccine safety, and the true origins of COVID-19. We discuss all these topics and more with Dr. David N. Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto.

It all started with something unimaginably tiny. In fact, if you could see the spiky coronavirus that causes COVID-19 floating midair, it would appear minuscule, even in comparison to the specks of dust floating alongside it. But that’s all it took, a submicroscopic, non-living pathogen to rock the world into chaos, to crash stock markets, to kill millions and to suffocate the world’s economies.

And, despite the panic and havoc the virus continues to cause worldwide – and its “novel” label – it is really nothing new. It has been, in fact, in nature all along, sitting there like a viral time bomb. And epidemiologists were expecting, even warning, that it – or at least something like it – could ignite the next pandemic.

“Most of our vulnerability comes from RNA viruses,” says Dr. David N. Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto.

This includes coronaviruses, influenza viruses and a list of other bugs flagged by the World Health Organization as likely threats to mankind.

Why? RNA viruses, as opposed to DNA ones, says Fisman, “mutate and recombine readily, so they pose the greatest threat for novel diseases.”

Dr. DavidundefinedN. Fisman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto.

Fisman has watched the global COVID-19 outbreak unfold since the start. And he’s got lots of ideas on how to prevent the next pandemic. Both a medical doctor and a professor, Fisman teaches about the epidemiology of infectious diseases at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health in Canada. His research has focused on pneumonia and other epidemic diseases, such as certain intestinal infections and sexually transmitted disease. The Harvard-trained health expert also studies the mathematical modeling and simulation of viral outbreaks.

TheStreet has tapped Fisman for his views on the COVID crisis since weeks before it was officially declared an actual pandemic by the World Health Organization. But, here, he looks forward. Fisman discusses lessons learned, vaccine safety, the murky story of how SARS-CoV-2 jumped to people, and how to get ready for the next global outbreak that’s likely lurking around the corner.

The following exchange was conducted by email and has been lightly edited. It focuses mainly on viral threats and is planned as part of a series of an occasional series of interviews looking ways to prevent the next pandemic.

TheStreet: In my inbox recently was an email for a forum discussion by Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health that began, "Fourteen months into an unprecedented, worldwide pandemic...."

But I don't think this pandemic was unprecedented, and, in the years prior, there was a lot of talk about the 1918 flu pandemic on its 100-year anniversary. SARS and MERS, two other dangerous coronaviruses, as well as Ebola and Zika, had also been in the news in the years prior. Still, most of the world, aside from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, really failed to act quickly with this virus, and really didn't seem to take it seriously at first. What do you think went wrong?

Fisman: I agree with you entirely in your rejection of this premise. Pandemics aren't a new thing at all. Epidemics and pandemics have been an important part of human history, and there are a lot of echoes of past responses to pandemics in our current situation. A paper by Dr. Peter Juni of St. Michael’s Hospital and colleagues does a wonderful job of showing that 2020 and 1918 are awfully similar. 

I think this feels like an aberration to us because – particularly in rich countries – we've grown very used to the idea that communicable diseases aren't something that can disrupt societies anymore. So, while this is just a repeat of the kind of event that's happened many times in human history, it's been a bit of a comeuppance, especially for wealthy Western countries. I think we've had a lot of competing interests and, frankly, some really bad governance. 

The countries that have done much better during this pandemic have been quick to identify it as an aerosol transmitted disease, have controlled their borders, have listened to science, and have been able to take collective action.

TheStreet: This pandemic really seemed to highlight was a lack of understanding of viral diseases, and that appeared to make people want to put this novel one in a familiar box: the flu or SARS or even the common cold. People seemed surprised that SARS-CoV-2 could be infectious before symptoms appear, that it could have such a long incubation time, and that it could leave many apparently unharmed, while killing and causing severe and sometimes lasting illness in others. But should we have been surprised? Shouldn't all of these been considered as possibilities from the start, instead of relying on airport temperature taking and assuming the virus wouldn't spread beyond Hubei?

Fisman: Again, I concur entirely. Most diseases have a wide spectrum in terms of virulence; pre-symptomatic transmission was something the Chinese were talking about early on. Pre-symptomatic transmission is a factor that really helps determine whether a disease can be controlled, and also, again, implies aerosol transmission of a respiratory disease. We are still struggling with these concepts institutionally in North America. If you can't accept science on how a disease spreads, you're not going to be able to control it.

TheStreet: Looking ahead to preventing or containing the next pandemic, it seems both ideas should be considered, right? So, let's start with surveillance. Talk about some ways world health authorities can boost surveillance to spot the next pandemic?

Fisman: I think we already have some interesting surveillance systems in place that work quite well. ProMED, which is a global email list server on infectious diseases, flagged COVID back around December 2019 or January 2020; they have a history of being out early on other diseases like SARS-1 and MERS. 

Something that's been interesting here in Canada is that web-crawler-based surveillance systems, that were leaned on by WHO and developed in Canada, were actually defunded prior to the pandemic. That's a bit of a scandal here right now, and it's not really clear who gave the order to pull the plug on that alert system, called GPHIN. It makes sense to me that we'd scale stuff like that back up.

An interesting surveillance tool that's really coming into its own during this pandemic is wastewater and sewage surveillance. It is proving to be sensitive and specific for epidemic activity, and one could imagine that being scaled up into a global network for surveillance of priority pathogens. There are already global research networks that look at pathogens in sewage.

One kind of surveillance activity whose role is a bit more questionable after this pandemic is construction of repositories of virulent pathogens gathered from the wild. I think we'll see where we land on the natural emergence vs. lab accident question in Wuhan, but if this pandemic does turn out to be the result of an accidental release from a lab that was engaged in collecting and possibly modifying coronaviruses, that kind of work is really going to have to be looked at carefully after the pandemic. In my opinion, it should be looked at regardless, because even if this was a pandemic that resulted from emergence of the virus in nature, exactly the same thing can happen with accidental lab release.

TheStreet: So, we know these novel diseases ... usually come from wild animals or insects that carry disease, right? We also know that some places, such as China, the world's second largest economy, has been a source of several recent outbreaks: SARS, COVID-19 and bird influenzas H5N1 and H7N9. What are some ways to prevent these types of viral outbreaks from occurring at the source? How much pressure should the world be putting on places like China -- whether this was from a lab or natural spillover -- and how much should it be helping places like Guinea and Sierra Leone or even Mexico and poorer places that are also sources of outbreaks?

Fisman: Yes, around 75% of "novel" emerging infectious diseases happen at the human-animal interface. The drivers of that phenomenon are complex and include how we produce food, including both industrial food production and consumption of bushmeat, increasing sprawl of cities into wilderness areas, and climate and environmental change. This is a paper from 15 years ago from EcoHealth Alliance, a group that's now somewhat in the headlines because of the possibility of lab origins of the current pandemic. 

In China, whatever the origin of SARS-2, it's clear that live animal markets and the trade in wild animals for food create potential vulnerability. Cross species transmission and viral recombination in stressed animals in crowded conditions. But industrial food production and sprawl also create vulnerability. And while economic development for poorer countries is a real positive, transportation infrastructure means that new diseases can move much more quickly from formerly isolated rural areas to global hubs. This happened with Ebola in 2015. So, it's almost the definition of a wicked problem, where you need people who understand economic development, ecology, climate change, food production, and infectious diseases putting their heads together on how to mitigate risk.

An important additional step forward would involve phase I and II trials for vaccines against animal diseases that we know have the potential to jump the species barrier and create a future pandemic: Nipah, Crimean-Congo, Rift Valley Fever, MERS, avian influenza viruses. Having vaccines at least partially developed when a future pandemic unfolds would avoid our current predicament of making vaccines from zero, while fighting a pandemic.

TheStreet: And then, climate change. In the U.S., at least, that's been a huge source of controversy. But aside from its other problems, it can actually contribute to the risk of pandemics, right? Explain.

Fisman: Climate change impacts communicable diseases in a few different ways. In terms of pandemics, I think it's more likely that both climate change and pandemics share upstream drivers in human economic activity and environmental degradation. There's some science-fiction-sounding stuff around defrosting permafrost and viral release, but that's really beyond my pay grade in terms of whether or not that's a threat. The big issues with climate change are: Warmer surface waters are clearly increasing risk of some waterborne diseases – cholera, non-cholera vibrios; increase in fly density has the potential to increase food-borne disease broadly; increased mosquito biting rates at warmer temperatures increases transmission risk for malaria and arboviral diseases like yellow fever and dengue; and diseases like Lyme disease have greater range. Also, disrupted ecology has the potential to increase the risk of zoonotic disease and we are probably seeing this with tularemia in Europe already. And, of course, human migration via desertification, increased sea levels, and war, will predictably have knock-on effects on communicable disease, for example, by increasing refugee and migrant populations.

TheStreet: We also the importance of public health messaging. We really seemed to witness a failure of public health messaging during this pandemic, not just in the U.S. but elsewhere, too. We still have people who don't even believe COVID is real. What are some ways to deal with this? 

Fisman: This is tough stuff. I think clear risk communication, as well as transparency and telling people what they can do to protect themselves, are core public health competencies, but not everyone is great at this part of the job. I remember Dr. Julie Gerberding, who was the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's director under President George W. Bush, as being a particularly excellent risk communicator, but I'm a big fan of the current director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, too.

Some of the muddle comes from emerging information being at odds with existing medical dogma. Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina's School of Information and Library Science, has written about how that's really disrupted messaging on aerosol transmission of COVID-19, where physicians and public health continue to insist that this is a disease that only transmits at short range, which is untrue.

Lastly, we have to deal with a real torrent of misinformation and disinformation, much of it pushed by hostile actors, likely including foreign intelligence services. We have open societies and social media provides tremendous ability to reach and target people. This is article is pretty interesting on some of the weirdness with Great Barrington.

TheStreet: Finally, we seem to have been both lucky and well positioned to have come up with what appear to be really good vaccines for COVID-19 so quickly. But I'm wondering about the PR campaign around them that seems to dismiss any problems associated with them. ... Should governments be more upfront about potential risks, but focus instead on much greater benefits of the vaccines' use during a pandemic? I mean, there's a reason people don't get smallpox vaccines, for example, when there is no risk of infection anymore, and that's partly because the risk of that vaccine outweighs the zero risk of the disease right now. But if that were to reemerge, certainly the vaccine would be far more preferable.

Fisman: We don't use smallpox vaccine anymore because that disease is eradicated, but your larger point about risk-benefit is important and we're seeing that play out right now with the AstraZeneca  (AZN) - Get Report vaccine and vaccine-induced thrombotic thrombocytopenia risk (which is a type of blood clotting along with a simultaneous low blood platelet count). As you say, it's tough to do "phase 4" safety surveillance, because it's hard to assign causality to bad things that happen after vaccines. But the VITT signal was picked up quickly for AZN and the quantitative risk analysis says that in a country like Canada, where we have lots of mRNA vaccine, it doesn't make sense to use AZN. But this is really tricky messaging: Vaccines are very safe, but we hold them to a higher standard than most health interventions, and we're discontinuing use because of safety. I agree: That's tricky. So far, the mRNA vaccines do seem to be remarkably safe and effective, but they're new, so we have to carry on with surveillance

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Commodities

Saudi Arabia Signals Backing For Russia In OPEC+

Saudi Arabia Signals Backing For Russia In OPEC+

Authored by Tom Ozimek via The Epoch Times,

Saudi Arabia has signaled its support for Russia as…

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Saudi Arabia Signals Backing For Russia In OPEC+

Authored by Tom Ozimek via The Epoch Times,

Saudi Arabia has signaled its support for Russia as a continued member of the OPEC+ oil cartel, which comes amid ongoing Western pressure to sanction and isolate Moscow over the Ukraine invasion.

Saudi energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman told the Financial Times in an interview published on May 22 that he sees Russia as an integral part of the OPEC+ group of oil producers, adding that politics should be kept out of the alliance.

He said Saudi Arabia hopes “to work an agreement with OPEC+ … which includes Russia,” referring to a new crude production deal. Oil pumping quotas under the current OPEC+ agreement struck in 2020 are set to expire in several months.

While the United States banned oil imports from Russia in March, member states of the European Union remain divided on phasing out Russian crude imports.

OPEC and its allies are unwinding record output cuts put in place during the worst of the pandemic in 2020, although they have rebuffed Western pressure to raise output at a faster pace as energy consumers grapple with the highest oil prices in years.

Oil prices surged above $130 per barrel in March over concerns of disrupted supplies from Russia, although they have since eased.

Brent crude futures rose by 22 cents to $112.77 a barrel by midafternoon on May 23, while the U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude fell 49 cents to $109.79.

High crude prices have translated into pain at the pump for drivers. The average price of regular-grade gasoline in the United States spiked 33 cents over the past two weeks to $4.71 per gallon, according to the Lundberg Survey, while JPMorgan analysts expect prices to climb above $6 a gallon by the end of the summer.

In his interview with the Financial Times, Prince Abdulaziz blamed soaring gasoline prices on taxes and a lack of global refining capacity.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said that the Russia–Ukraine conflict has injected greater volatility into oil markets.

“Sanctions on Russia and other independent corporate actions contributed to falling oil production in Russia and continue to create significant market uncertainties about the potential for further oil supply disruptions,” EIA said in the outlook, noting that Russia sanctions came against a backdrop of persistent upward oil price pressures and low oil inventories.

Global oil inventory levels in April in developed countries stood at 2.63 billion barrels, up marginally from February, when they fell to their lowest level since April 2014, EIA said.

“Because oil inventories are currently low, we expect downward oil price pressures will be limited and market conditions will exist for significant price volatility,” EIA noted.

The agency predicts Brent will average $103 per barrel in the second half of 2022, before falling to $97 per barrel in 2023.

In its most recent monthly report, OPEC cut its forecast for growth in world oil demand in 2022, citing the impact of the Ukraine war, surging inflation, and pandemic curbs in China.

Tyler Durden Tue, 05/24/2022 - 05:00

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International

Pandas wants to give Latin American businesses buying power in Asia

Pandas connects Latin America’s small businesses directly with Asian manufacturers to reduce logistical problems and high fees often imposed by importers…

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Access to global supply chains can be difficult for small businesses in Latin America, but companies like Meru, which raised funding in March to source and import goods between Mexico and China, and now more recently Pandas, are tapping into overseas relationships and technology to make this easier.

In Pandas’ case, the company is doing something similar to Meru, but starting in Colombia, connecting small businesses directly with Asian manufacturers, so that they can reduce the high fees often imposed by half a dozen importers and intermediaries as well as logistical problems that all businesses are facing right now where inventory is now taking many more months to arrive than during pre-pandemic times.

Co-founders Rio Xin and Marcos Esterli started Pandas just three months ago to provide Asian-origin inventory to micro-businesses in Latin America. Their collective background includes careers at McKinsey and Treinta for Esterli, and McKinsey, with more than seven years spent in China, for Xin, where he told TechCrunch he developed a strong network in the region.

“The main issue that we’ve seen is people who don’t understand the Chinese language or how Chinese manufacturers work and then you add in the logistical problems,” Xin added. “We are able to bridge the breach, while at the same time having our team in China to overcome all these logistics problems.”

Pandas B2B marketplace. Image Credits: Pandas

Here’s how it works: Businesses order products via the Pandas marketplace, touting lower pricing, in which the business can make purchases in a few clicks. Pandas takes it from there, offering one-day-delivery and customer support.

Esterli explained that people in Latin America have been using smartphones for their personal finances and other tasks, but that has not translated as quickly to the business side.

“A lot of customers told us Alibaba was something they wanted to use, but that it was very complicated to figure out,” he added. “We wanted to build an easy solution that was super intuitive because business owners don’t have that time to spend.”

Initially providing basic electronics products — think headphones, accessories and cables — and with a new round of funding, $5.8 million pre-seed, Pandas will move into categories like textiles and home accessories. The company touts the pre-seed investment as “the largest pre-seed financial in Spanish-speaking LatAm to date.”

Third Kind Venture Capital led the round and was joined by Acequia Capital, Picus Capital, Tekton Ventures, Partech, Liquid2 Ventures, Clocktower Technology Ventures, Gaingels and a host of individual investors, including Tul’s Juan Carlos Narvaez, Jose Jair Bonilla from Chiper, Treinta’s Man Hei and Lluís Cañadell, Pablo Viguera from Belvo, Nowports’ Alfonso de los Rios, Sujay Tyle from Merama and Ironhack’s Gonzalo Manrique.

So far in its young journey, the company is growing 100% month over month and has amassed a supplier network of about 300 out of 5,000 in China, Xin said.

In addition to moving into those new inventory categories, the new capital will enable Pandas to scale its operations, technology and product development and make new hires.

Xin expects to be in most of the main markets across Latin America in the next three years. In the meantime, new features coming down the pipeline in the next 12 months include a suite of fintech and analytics tools like financing.

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Government

Monkeypox cases are rising. Should we be worried?

The World Health Organization has said the current outbreak of monkeypox is the largest ever recorded outside sub-Saharan
The post Monkeypox cases are…

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The World Health Organization has said the current outbreak of monkeypox is the largest ever recorded outside sub-Saharan Africa, with cases rising above the 100-mark a few days ago and the UK top of the table with 56 as of yesterday.

Top of the list of concerns is how the virus – which does not spread easily between humans and requires skin-to-skin contact – is spreading so quickly in so many countries in Europe, the Americas and Australia where the disease is not endemic.

There is speculation that monkeypox may be being spread between sexual partners, even though it is not normally considered a sexually-transmitted infection. Thankfully, there have been no deaths reported so far, although the WHO notes monkeypox has a fatality rate of between 3% and 6%.

While health authorities are on alert, the WHO said it thinks the outbreak can be contained and that the overall risk to the population remains low. It also stressed there is no evidence that a viral mutation is responsible for the unusual pattern of infections.

Monkeypox is considered less likely to mutate quickly because it is a DNA virus rather than an RNA virus like influenza or COVID-19.

Several countries including Belgium and the UK are already advising a three-week quarantine period for anyone who contracts the virus and their close contacts.

The increasing case numbers in the current monkeypox outbreak are certainly concerning,” commented Dr Charlotte Hammer, an expert in emerging infectious diseases based at the University of Cambridge in the UK.

“It is very unusual to see community transmission in Europe – previous monkeypox cases have been in returning travellers with limited ongoing spread. However, based on the number of cases that were already discovered across Europe and the UK in the previous days, it is not unexpected that additional cases are now being and will be found, especially with the contact tracing that is now happening.”

Vaccines and drugs are available

Meanwhile, attention is now being turned to other measures to control the outbreak, including the use of vaccines against smallpox – a related virus – in a ‘ring vaccination’ approach designed to control the spread among contacts.

Vaccines used during the smallpox eradication programme can provide around 85% protection against monkeypox, according to the WHO, which notes that one newer vaccine – Bavarian Nordic’s Jyneos – has been approved by the FDA for prevention against both viruses.

There’s also a licensed antiviral drug for monkeypox. SIGA Technologies’ oral drug Tpoxx (tecovirimat) is approved for smallpox, monkeypox and cowpox in Europe, and in the US and Canada for smallpox, although it can be used off-label for the other disease. The US FDA also approved a new intravenous form of the drug last week.

The WHO says there is no need for widespread vaccination, as other control measures like isolation of patients should be enough to curb the spread and in any case supplies of vaccines are limited.

Monkeypox causes symptoms similar to but milder than smallpox, typically beginning with fever, headache, muscle aches and exhaustion. It is transmitted to people from various wild animals, such as rodents and primates, and is usually a self-limited disease with symptoms lasting from two to four weeks.

In 2003, the US experienced an outbreak of monkeypox, which was the first time human monkeypox was reported outside of Africa. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is making some Jyneos vaccine reserves available for close contact inoculations, including healthcare workers tending to patients.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said yesterday it had identified 36 additional cases of monkeypox in England, and that vaccination of high-risk contacts of cases is already underway.

“A notable proportion of recent cases in the UK and Europe have been found in gay and bisexual men so we are particularly encouraging these men to be alert to the symptoms,” said the agency’s chief medical advisor Dr Susan Hopkins.

“Because the virus spreads through close contact, we are urging everyone to be aware of any unusual rashes or lesions and to contact a sexual health service if they have any symptoms.”

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