Saturday, January 30, 2021

‘Immunological unicorn’discovered in Australia

In a high security laboratory in Sydney, where a select group of researchers go to extreme lengths to work with samples of blood and swabs containing Covid-19, virologist Stuart Turville found a unicorn.

“A beautiful, immunological unicorn,” Turville, an associate professor with the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales, said.

“We found him when we were analysing samples from the Red Cross blood bank from people who have had Covid. And he had the most amazing Covid response I’ve ever seen.”

The unicorn is a 50-year-old father of three named Damian living on the NSW Central Coast who developed symptoms of Covid-19 in March. His symptoms were severe enough to take him to the hospital emergency department, but after being given oxygen he was sent home the same day. Bizarrely, when he was tested for the virus with the gold-standard PCR nasal swab, the lab kept returning a negative result for Covid-19.

“When they initially diagnosed him they couldn’t find virus in his nasopharyngeal area [the upper part of the throat behind the nose],” Turville told Guardian Australia.

“So they kept on swabbing him and swabbing him, but they couldn’t find it. He kept on saying to them, ‘Look, I’m sick, my son’s got it, I have to have it’. And it was only when they looked at his blood, his serum, they said; ‘Oh, yeah, you’ve had it. And you’ve got the most amazing immune response’.”

Most people who have Covid-19 develop a decent immune response.

“But this guy’s response is 100 to 1,000-fold that,” Turville said.

“His response is that good. To put it in context, we are eight or nine months out since he was infected. And he still ranks in the top 1% of responders, so what that means is if we could ever bottle a vaccine that could mimic his response, you’d want to do it. I would say that we’re going to see him responding just as well probably a year out, and maybe after about two years we might start to see some response decay.”

Usually, patients who show a particularly robust immune response to Covid-19 end up in an intensive care ward. In many of these severely unwell patients, the immune system overreacts in what is called a “cytokine storm”. Cytokines are proteins that can trigger an inflammatory response so aggressive that not only are virus cells attacked but cells in the blood vessels, urinary tract, organs and blood vessels are also destroyed, leading to organ failure and sometimes death. For some reason Damian’s response, though strong, did not bring on such an aggressive storm.

“That’s something we’re trying to get our head around,” Turville said.

Not only is Damian’s immune response lasting but it has not weakened much over time, offering strong ongoing protection against the virus, which is what makes him so unique. A Public Health England study found that while most people who have the virus are protected from reinfection for at least five months, some are reinfected, and even asymptomatic people can harbour high levels of the virus in their noses and mouths, and therefore risk passing it on to others.

After being told about his unicorn status, Damian offered himself up for medical research. Turville estimates that Damian has donated blood and plasma upwards of 15 times.

Hundreds of recovered Australians like Damian have now donated blood so their plasma, teeming with antibodies, can be separated out and used to make batches of serum through a collaboration between the Kirby Institute and manufacturer CSL. This serum is then given to severely unwell patients around the world to treat their disease.

“It also means that if the virus emerges again in Australia and takes off, we’re battle ready,” Turville said.

“Damian’s serum has contributed to many batches of these CSL products. Whenever we get a batch of serum that is particularly amazing, we say ‘OK, he’s in this batch’. That’s how impressive his response is.”

Some of the findings about Damian have been published in a pre-print paper about “high and elite responders,” which describes how “patients with high and robust Covid-19 responses were more likely male, hospitalised, and of older age”.

It is work like this that has researchers from the Kirby Institute’s containment lab – more scientifically referred to as a Physical Containment Level 3 (PC3) Laboratory – occupied at times until 3am in the morning. They also examine samples taken from returned travellers in hotel quarantine, growing the different variants in the lab to see how they behave. It is one of a handful of high-security labs around Australia where the virus is being studied.

Recover and revitalise education

As Australia’s 4 million school students and their educators kick off a new school year, it must be free of educational complacency for the path ahead.

It’s fitting that back to school coincides with this week’s UNESCO International Education Day —themed around ‘recovery and revitalisation of education for the covid-19 generation’.

Recovery and revitalisation are certainly worthy aims for policymakers in light of last year’s educational disruption. School closures undeniably resulted in learning losses and forced educators, policymakers, and parents to challenge existing schooling practices and priorities.

The task of recovery — in scope and scale — mustn’t be dismissed.

Last year, CIS research found that around 1.25 million students in the eastern states — over 40% of them — were likely to have fallen behind.

The plan of attack in NSW and Victoria is centred on marshalling a thousands-strong army of tutors to provide catch-up support. However, it’s expected this will assist only around one in five students — or around half those that will likely need it.

And while schools will welcome the help in remedying lost learning, to date there’s been limited quality assurance and considerable uncertainty over expectations of catch-up tutors.

The scale of learning loss is also likely to eclipse previous — relatively benign — predictions.

Late last year, the results of a pseudo-NAPLAN test found NSW students had fallen behind by months rather than weeks. This means that while schools were closed — around 7 weeks in NSW — students not only progressed more slowly, but effectively went backwards. This bodes poorly for Victoria’s status as the education state, since students were out of class for up to 18 weeks.

Among the key events of the 2021 education calendar will be May’s NAPLAN exams — results of which will paint a national picture of student progress following the pandemic.

But just as recovery will not be for the education policy faint-hearted, so too will be the challenge of revitalisation. This will largely hinge on learning key Covid lessons to better harness parental engagement and technology in schools.

In 2020, home-based learning gave many parents a closer look at, and interest in, their child’s schooling. CIS polling shows a majority now have more positive views on teachers and schools. A key task for educators this year will be to capitalise on this goodwill via more constructive engagement between school and the home.

In addition, 2020 saw educators embrace increased uptake of technology in schools — many with a view to entrenching a more permanent place for digitalising course content, collaboration, and assessment. While innovation is welcome, this will require smarter and more discerning applications than has been typical in the past.

The Covid-19 generation will need to muster all the available support this year to ensure they don’t become educational casualties of the pandemic.

If 2020 will be remembered for its educational disruption, 2021 must be equally characterised by recovery and revitalisation.

Violent parents, power-drunk principals, out-of-control students – a veteran Brisbane teacher has revealed the horrors of teaching in today’s State primary schools

Violent parents, classrooms full of students medicated for disorders, and principals who are “horrific bullies” are all in a day’s work for exhausted Queensland educators.

Children as young as six are trying to set classrooms on fire, stabbing teachers with scissors and calling them c--ts.

Many kids arrive hungry, filthy and have spent the night “cowering under their beds” as parents attack each other in drug and alcohol-fuelled rages.

Learning is further compromised by a content-heavy curriculum that kills creativity, while stressed-out teachers “live in fear” of poor NAPLAN results and power-drunk principals.

Add reduced government funding to the mix and children are falling through the cracks and turning to crime.

This scathing education report card comes from a passionate teacher of 30 years who has “seen and heard it all” in state and private primary schools across Brisbane and beyond. The married mother of two teenagers, who wishes to remain anonymous to protect her career, is speaking out because she wants to see change.

At the top of her list is improved mental health and social support in schools to help “damaged, broken little people”.

She wants education to get back to basics, and greater support and respect for the role of teachers.

“You go into teaching to make a difference but sometimes everything you do is still not enough,” she says.

“Shocking stuff goes on, it’s heartbreaking, and classrooms can be warzones.”

Her candid revelations come as Education Queensland data shows attacks on teachers have soared in the past five years. The number of suspensions for assaults with objects has increased by 29 per cent while attacks without objects are up by 50 per cent.

The pressure on teachers to meet unrealistic expectations has also been identified in recent studies as a major reason people quit the profession, particularly in the first few years.

While this veteran educator is in it for the long haul, she wants to expose the truth about teaching in today’s primary schools.

Not all state schools are created equal. What goes on in affluent inner city schools cannot be compared to what happens in outer disadvantaged areas.

In one of my grade 3 classes, half of the students were on medication for behavioural disorders or mental health problems – and six boys were so hard core, every single day.

One would lock himself in the storeroom and I’d finally coerce him into the classroom and get him into his desk and he’d reach out and punch the kid sitting beside him in the head.

I’ve had a student try to set the classroom on fire and two boys who really enjoyed getting on the roof and putting sticks in the TV antenna. There is constant noncompliance and disrespect.

These kids come from such dysfunctional families and are in constant fight or flight mode.

If you ever do meet the parents, mum’s got no teeth because the latest boyfriend’s knocked them out.

Kids are either up all night cowering under their beds, hiding from violent adults who are boozing and drugging, or their stepdad is chasing them down the road with a knife.

They come to school damaged and broken, so I try to create a positive family environment within the classroom and I tell them we need to make sure everyone is feeling welcome and safe.

We celebrate the smallest of wins, like someone going from 3/10 for spelling one week to 5/10 the next, because it’s about instilling self-confidence.

Mental health is an increasing problem.

I’ve face-timed a nine-year-old girl in a psychiatric hospital to let her know I am there for her any hour of the day or night. We need to be wrapping around our kids a lot more – there are not enough services within schools, yet kids are crying out for help and unless we deal with that first and help them with whatever is going on, we can’t make any difference to their learning.

Record almond harvest is coming despite a challenging year for agriculture

While some horticulture industries are having one of the most challenging harvests with workforce shortages and heavy tariffs, one sector continues to go from strength to strength.

Almond production is booming now with around 123,000 tonnes expected to be harvested in Australia this year — the largest on record.

With 80 per cent of the world's almond coming from California, Australian almonds are proving their place in the market. With every tonne of almonds sold in Australia, three tonnes are exported to around 50 countries.

Chief executive of Almond Board Australia, Ross Skinner, said the projected 10 per cent increase in harvest this year was due to the second wave of expansion from plantings in 2016.

"[The record harvest] is mainly based on the increased planting coming into production," Mr Skinner said.

"We've increased our planting over the past five years, and those trees are starting to mature into much larger trees and bearing much more crop."

With the harvest due to start any week now, Mr Skinner said the mechanical process of producing almonds, as well as the demand for the product at home and overseas, had meant the industry had avoided major hurdles that were currently facing other horticultural industry from COVID-19 movement restrictions.

The fallout with China that resulted in heavy tariffs on barley and wine is not something that is expected to be a concern for almonds.

"Much of the 2020 crop was pre-sold before the issue with trade relations with China emerged so we were confident that those contracts would be honoured and that has been the case," Mr Skinner said.

"All indicators show that the relationship will remain strong, and we have been fortunate that we have alternate markets if things turn sour, but at this stage, things look promising."

And as for labour shortages putting stress on industries like stone fruit, where the strain is causing some farmers to walk away altogether, the mechanics of almond process means less reliance on hands-on labour.

"We will have an extra 1,000 seasonal workers during the harvest season, and most of our producers had organised that labour already," Mr Skinner said.

"Being a highly mechanised industry means our harvest requirements aren't as high as the other horticultural industry, so we are well placed when it comes to labour."

Sales to the second biggest market, India, have increased to 38 per cent compared to last year and the Middle East and European markets are up 16 and 17 per cent, respectively.

"There's been strong growth in the export market, which is what we've needed because we've been growing more and more," Mr Skinner said.




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