Friday, December 03, 2021

Why is RT-LAMP testing for COVID not more widely used?

We're currently in the UK visiting ailing relatives, and travelling here has been quite an undertaking, what with all the COVID testing and documentation to deal with. But we have managed it (although how people who are not vaguely tech-savvy and at least moderately educated I don't know). We have one more hurdle to jump through as regards testing, and that is the self-administered PCR test withing 72 hours of our return to Canada, and we have that waiting ready to go.

But I notice that Air Canada are offering (for Aeroplan members at least) RT-LAMP molecular tests that can be bought in Canada and taken with travellers, to be used before returning to Canada. The tests are self-administered in combination with a Telehealth Canada video session (so, yes, you need to be at least a little tech-savvy for this too). Results, though, are available within 45 minutes, which reduces the stress of waiting for a 24-hour or 48-hour result from a regular PCR test. 

The Air Canada "reduced" price for the RT-LAMP test is $149, so about the same as the pre-trip PVR test test did, although still not cheap, and more than the UK PCR test we booked. It might be a good option, though, for countries where testing is more expensive, or just difficult to arrange. And, yes, the tests are accepted by Health Canada for travel purposes.

The RT-LAMP test - the full name is reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification test, hence the shortened acronym - is pretty accurate according to studies, comparable with the gold standard PCR test. So, I wonder why it is not more widely known or used?

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Watch robots packing our groceries order

We're en route to England, and we have a Tesco groceries delivery booked for when we arrive. 

But check out this video of how supermarket delivery order are process and packed by robots. Quite extraordinary.

Friday, November 26, 2021

New African variant highlights that Africa jas been largely spared by the pandemic

As countries around the world start worrying about a new super-variant of the COVID-19 virus discovered in South Africa, it only serves to underscore the fact that Africa in general seems to have been spared the worst of the pandemic thus far.

A new variant discovered in South Africa, labelled B.1.1.529, has health experts worried because of its "unusual constellation of mutations" and the big jump in evolution it represents. The variant exhibits about 50 different mutations, including over 30 on the spike protein alone, and it is radically different from the original virus that emerged in Wuhan, China, two years ago (yes, two years!)

Scientists are not sure yet just what the implications are for the variant's transmissibility, its symptomology, and the extent to which current vaccines will be effective against it. Thus far, just a handful of cases have been identified - 77 in South Africa, 4 in neighbouring Botswana, and 1 in Hong Kong (directly linked to travel from South Africa), but many scientists are noticeably jumpy around it.

Maps of confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19 across the world bring out the perhaps unexpected fact that Africa in general (with the marked exception of South Africa) has had a relatively easy time of  the pandemic compared to Europe, North America and Asia. Many researchers have remarked on this and tried to understand why COVID has had less of an impact in Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. 

Top theories are: the relatively young age demographic of sub-Saharan Africa (the median age is half that North America, Europe and Asia); the almost complete lack of long-term care facilities (apart from, notably, South Africa); potential cross-protection from other locally circulating coronaviruses (including several from human-bat interactions); potential under-counting of both deaths and cases due to poor healthcare infrastructure in the region and a lack of adequate testing facilities; and, paradoxically, some rapid and effective government public health responses in the area (including early border closures, strict lockdowns, and the sharing of COVID-19 information across sub-Saharan Africa, and perhaps the fact that Africa's healthcare system, such as it is, is more geared towards infectious diseases than much of the rest of the world). 

I might add that the poorer regions of the world probably have less international travel (and less travel in general) than other areas, which may have had a serendipitously beneficial effect during this time. 

It is certainly notable that the outlier in Africa is South Africa, which has seen a much worse outbreak than the rest of the continent. South Africa is a much richer and more developed country than most of sub-Saharan Africa, with a much higher median age, a long-term care sector, a higher prevalence of non-communicable non-infectious diseases, and a more developed healthcare system with better diagnostic capabilities and better documentation. So, it does all kind of make sense when you stop and think about it.


The new variant is now known as the Omicron variant, and is officially a WHO "variant of concern". Several countries, including Canada and the USA, have already banned travel from South Africa and a few other southern African countries. But the variant has already spread from South Africa to Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium (the latter not linked to travel from South Africa, but from Egypt, which is not known to have Omicron cases), so the genie may already be out of the bottle. 

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Why is America still the dream for thousands of Haitian (and other) migrants?

I find it hard to fathom the mindset of the thousands of Haitians (and Venezuelans and other nationalities, but mainly Haitians) who make the perilous journey to Colombia, through the roadless jungles of the Darien Gap into Panama, and then across the borders of a bunch of other Central American countries to Mexico and ultimately to the southern border of the United States of America. Nearly 4,000 kilometres on foot through hostile and dangerous territory, crossing around 80 rivers and at least two sections of open sea, all to get to the so-called Land of the Free ... which has said (and shown) repeatedly that they are not welcome.

Thousands have already been deported right back to Haiti from the Mexico-US border, after all that inconceivable hardship, injury and, yes, loss of life. Some get side-tracked along the route, sometimes spending years in South American countries like Chile, Brazil or Peru. But the USA is always the dream, the ultimate destination, even though it is no easier to get in now than it was under Donald Trump. A few are slowly starting to reassess those dreams, and considering halting in Mexico.

But surely they must know that their chances of getting into the USA are slim to nil and that, even if they do, they will be forever on the run, evading authorities, and living a liminal existence at best. What is the attraction of America in this day and age? is it just the promise of more money (even under the counter, in semi-slavery conditions), because the US is a richer country? Can that really be enough to risk so much, and to put up with so much hardship? 

I know that things in Haiti are grim, and that these are desperate people. But I still find it quite literally impossible to understand their frame of mind

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

"The situation is fluid" - yeah, right

Hard on the heels of the catastrophic rainfall and floods in British Columbia (and a new downfall that theatens to wash away any repairs that have already been made there), comes a torrential downfall in southwestern Newfoundland on Canada's East coast. Chaos to the left of us and chaos to be right...
But, please, all those small-town mayors and provincial premiers need to stop talking about how "the situation is fluid", at least if they want us to take them seriously.

Attacks on mainstream cinemas showing Indian language films not a mystery

There has been another spate of vandalism in Canada's biggest cinema chain, Cineplex. Luckily, I suppose, there does not seem to be any racist underpinning to the attacks. Rather, it seems to be more in the way of a local turf war.

Four screens in two cinemas in the Greater Toronto Area showing a film in the Malayalam language of South India were slashed. This follows at least seven other similar incidents since 2015 in which screens were slashed and pepper or bear spray were released into the audience, disrupting movies in languages like Tamil, Talugu and Malayalam.

It is thought that the attacks may be a response to mainstream chains like Cineplex and Landmark Cinemas getting into the screening of Indian language films that were previously the sole preserve of small independent cinemas like the Albion, Woodside and York theatres. However, it has been impossible to directly implicate the small cinemas in these attacks so far. Spokespeople for these independents categorically deny any involvement in the attacks (well, they would, wouldn't they?), and say that they too have been attacked over the years, including the vandalization of washrooms.

This kind of lawlessness might be not unexpected in the wilds of small-town Southern India, but it is shocking to encounter it in supposedly civilized Toronto.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Japan's miraculous COVID turnaround

Remember the Summer Olympics? Japan seemed to be teetering on the brink of disaster back in August, with COVID cases reaching record levels with no apparent end in sight. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga ignored the advice of his health advisors in letting the Games go ahead at all. The Japanese vaccination rollout was widely considered to have been bungled calamitously, and vaccination rates lagged far below those of other developed countries. There were demonstrations in the street, and eventually Suga was forced to step down amid disastrous approval ratings. 

Fast forward just a few short months and we see a very different Japan. Suddenly, COVID infections have fallen to the lowest levels in over a year, vaccination rates are among the world's best, and most emergency measures have been lifted for the first time in months. Japan is now looking like a role model just as many other countries, particularly parts of Europe, are seeing their worst ever pandemic conditions.

So, what gives?

Well, those emergency measures are part of the story, particularly the widespread wearing of masks (which, in Japan, as in China, is a very normal thing to do during viral outbreaks like the flu), as are the high - and relatively recent - vaccination rates. 

But some health experts, including Prof. Ituro Inoue of Japan's National Institute of Genetics, say that even the mask-wearimg, social distancing, and vaccine coverage are not enough to explain such a precipitous decline in cases and hospitalizations, and argue that the Delta variant may have reached a point of "natural extinction" in the country, not seen elsewhere. The Delta variant became so successful in the country that it blocked all other variants. But then, for reasons still not clearly understood, it became faulty and was unable to make copies of itself. In this way, it could mutate itself out of existence in Japan (and conceivably in other countries too) as it turned down an "evolutionary dead-end".

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. This phenomenon is not well understood, and there is no guarantee that the same thing will happen elsewhere (particularly where there is a lot of international trade and traffic). In the meantime, wear your masks, avoid people in enclosed spaces wherever possible, get your vaccination (and your booster if available). Oh, and cross your fingers - it might just help.

Canada's Conservatives stick in a vaccine snafu of their own making

Canada's MPs headed back to Ottawa yesterday for an old-style in-person debate session, after an unconscionable long time out in t he wilderness (the election was way back on September 20th, and the Liberals dissolved Parliament over a month earlier, on August 15th). 

Parliament is due to recess again for Chrismas on December 15th, so they have all of 4 weeks to get a lot done. But all anybody could talk about yesterday was the Conservatives' vaccination status. With a new Liberal minority government in power, you'd expect the official opposition Conservatives to come out swing aggressively. But instead they were very much on the defensive over the issue of the parliamentary vaccine mandate.

You see, nobody knows which of the Conservative caucus members are vaccinated. Every other party has been quite transparent in disclosing that all their members are fully vaccinated (one Liberal MP who did qualify for an exemption got vaccinated anyway). The Conservatives have not done so, and leader Erin O'Toole and deputy House leader Michael Barrett claim not to know who might be vaccinated and who might have an exemption, and apparently they don't really care.

It is thought that multiple Conservative MPs are not vaccinated and have somehow obtained exemptions, even though statistically only 1 in 100,000 might typically be expected to qualify for a medical exemption. But we just don't know. What a weird situation. The Conssrvatives are the only party in Parliament that opposes the vaccine mandate for parliamentarians.

In the meantime, the Liberals and other parties can take the moral high ground, and the Tories are left with egg on their faces and are even more inept and ineffectual than usual.