Monday, December 27, 2021

Only a handful of Covid patients in ICU have Omicron and most are unvaccinated with underlying health conditions as Delta drives hospitalisations - not the new variant

The first major study into Omicron in Australia has revealed the new variant is responsible for very few hospitalisations and the majority of those are unvaccinated.

NSW Health released data on who is actually sick with Covid even as cases surge, finding Delta is responsible for most of the state's severe cases.

Most of the patients being treated in intensive care are unvaccinated, many with underlying health conditions.

There are 52 people in ICU, 34 of whom are unvaccinated. That rose slightly to 55 by Monday morning.

All but a handful of these patients are infected with the Delta variant rather than the new Omicron strain, which early studies indicate is less severe.

'Everybody in NSW is probably going to get Omicron at some stage. Everyone in Australia,' NSW Health minister Brad Hazzard said.

'From early indications NSW Health believe the majority of ICU Covid patients have the Delta variant. Health are seeking to confirm this through additional tests.'

Despite another 6,324 new infections on Monday, officials encouraged people to live life normally as studies indicate Omicron isn't as serious as its predecessors.

Covid patients need to be cleared by a medical professional before leaving isolation, but Mr Hazzard said Australians could manage it with rapid antigen tests, plenty of fluids, and paracetamol.

Mr Hazzard also pleaded with Australians to only get a PCR test if they had symptoms or were directed to as a close contact, and instead to use rapid antigen.

He said the time delay at overwhelmed clinics meant results would take so long, residents could catch the virus between testing and getting results.

'If you have a test today and then you are visiting Aunty Mabel in three or four days, it may well be that by then, you are positive,' he said.

'A far simpler, far quicker measure would be simply to be get a rapid antigen test… preferably half an hour or an hour beforehand.

'If you're not particularly sick, you probably don't need to be doing very much except probably taking some Panadol if you've got a temperature and making sure you're drinking plenty of fluids.'

Free rapid tests will be rolled out from 2022 onwards at the NSW government looks to normalise living with the virus.

'Take personal responsibility, socially distance, follow the rules that are in place … but we are about instilling confidence in our people, confidence has been key,' Premier Dominic Perrottet said.

'Whether that's consumer confidence, business confidence.

'We are going to get through it… let's not look at the negative, let's look at the positive.'


‘Very interested’: Israel eyes closer security ties with Australia

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has opened the door to deepening security ties with Australia and the Five Eyes spying network to counter Iran’s cyber attacks and combat terrorism.

Mr Lapid said Australian law enforcement agencies now had the opportunity to hunt Hezbollah’s global terror network after the Morrison government last month declared the Lebanese group a terrorist organisation.

In an exclusive interview with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Mr Lapid said Israel was “very interested in deepening our ties with Australia and with all countries in the Indo-Pacific”.

Mr Lapid said striking a free trade agreement with Australia was also a priority which would “expand trade and help create jobs in both our countries”, and floated the prospect of direct flights between the two countries.

His comments suggest that Israel wants to become more relevant in the Indo-Pacific region amid escalating tensions between China and the United States.

In recent years, there have been calls from many national security experts for an expansion of the Five Eyes spy network - which includes Australia, the United States, Britain, New Zealand and Canada - with Japan and Israel named as potential additions.

Mr Lapid said Israel already had extensive ties with Five Eyes nations, including an “incredibly close intelligence-sharing and security partnership with our closest ally, the United States”, but would look to deepen the relationships.

“We’re focused on continuing to deepen these ties through their existing frameworks and agreements, and we would consider any other options for expanding these ties should they present themselves,” he said.

Australia in November listed all of Lebanese political party and militant group Hezbollah as a terrorist entity, making it a criminal offence to be a member.

Mr Lapid, who spoke with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne last month, said Israel was “interested in deepening our security cooperation with Australia” in light of the move.

“A major first step in this regard was Australia’s decision just last month to declare the entirety of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation,” he said.

Australia to back international definition of anti-Semitism
“Australia is one of a number of countries around the world to do so in just the past two years, and the decision will give Australian law enforcement agencies the tools necessary to fight Hezbollah’s global terror network.

“We are glad that Australia has come to the right conclusion that Hezbollah is a cruel terrorist organisation which endangers the citizens of all countries.”

He said countering Iran’s state-sponsored cyber attacks and its support for “brutal dictators and terrorist proxies” should also be a priority for both countries after signing a memorandum of understanding on cyber security in 2019.

“In the cyber realm, Iran and its proxies frequently attack security, economic, and even civilian infrastructure in countries all around the world,” he said. “As a global cyber security leader, Israel certainly has expertise and experience to share with Australia. And we know Australia is today prioritising and making record investments in cyber security, which will offer even more ways for Israel to learn from Australia as well.”

The Israel-Palestine conflict continued to be a source of tension in the Australian Labor Party this year after an outbreak of violence in May which included protests, rocket attacks on Israel by Hamas and Israeli airstrikes targeting the Gaza Strip. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese in July slammed a Labor motion backed by former NSW premier Bob Carr calling for a boycott of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians, saying it was counterproductive and not supported by anyone in his party room.

Asked whether divisions within the broader ALP movement were a concern, Mr Lapid said Australia’s friendship towards Israel had “thrived under the leadership of governments left, right and centre in Israel, and led by both parties in Australia”.

”Our friendship is also based on shared values including commitments to human rights and the fundamental elements of democracy – a free press, an independent judiciary, a strong civil society, and religious freedom,” he said.

He also said Israel was “grateful” for Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s decision to support the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition on “antisemitism”.

Critics of the definition, including the Palestinian movement and human rights groups, have warned it could be used to stifle legitimate debate about the Israeli government and threatens freedom of speech.

Mr Lapid said Mr Morrison’s decision was “yet another example of Australia’s consistent friendship towards Israel and the Jewish people, which also includes standing up against horrendous bias against Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, in international institutions such as the United Nations”.


As Omicron COVID cases continue to surge, the race is on to find a variant-proof vaccine

In a state-of-the-art science lab, nestled into the genteel slopes of the NSW Southern Highlands, a group of genetically engineered mice have become frontline soldiers in the fight against COVID-19.

The mice have been inoculated with carrier proteins – used as the early building blocks of a new generation of vaccine — that scientists hope will make them resistant to any variant of SARS-CoV-2.

While still very early days, the goal is to create a variant-proof vaccine that is effective against not just the coronavirus mutations we have grappled with so far, but anything the virus throws at us in the months and years ahead.

“We are using some pretty cutting-edge technology,” says Deborah Burnett, a vet-turned-research officer with the Garvan Institute’s Immunogenomics Lab. “If the COVID-19 pandemic had happened even five years ago we would not have been able to do the kind of work we are doing now.”

As COVID-19 cases surge through the community with bleak predictions on how high the numbers will go, and the sheer anxiety of living with so much uncertainty — will you encounter COVID on a trip to the supermarket? How sick are you likely to become if infected? Who might you unknowingly transmit it to? Will hospitals cope? – the steady progress of science continues to offer hope.

Universal vaccines are the next great goal in efforts to control COVID-19, and Burnett and the Garvan Institute are not the only ones focused on their promise.

Vaccine researchers in the US and Norway, for example, are also progressing with variant-proof vaccine candidates.

And at Sydney’s Westmead Institute for Medical Research, Sarah Palmer and Eunok Lee are doing promising research into a variant-proof COVID booster shot.

The question now, Palmer says, is not so much how do we fight SARS-CoV-2, but "how do we fight a variant?"

"I think the best way to fight these variants is to develop a universal booster," Palmer says.

Back in the Southern Highlands, Burnett explains that the mice used in the trials are raised in a controlled, pathogen-free environment so their immune system has not been primed by exposure to any other viruses.

The mice are not given COVID-19, rather they are immunised with different carrier proteins sourced from a database of 192,000 different coronaviruses and mutations. Burnett then studies individual cells to determine what antibodies the mice have made from a lab at Garvan's Darlinghurst research hub in Sydney.

"We have access to these amazing mice that have been genetically engineered to make fully human antibody responses to vaccination,” she says.

"These mice really are quite ground-breaking technology and the next best thing you can have to a human. They give us ability to explore things that were previously very difficult to study in anything other than human trials."

The Garvan mouse trials, being undertaken in collaboration with UNSW’s RNA and Kirby institutes, uncovered a surprising finding: immunisation with proteins from related viruses like SARS-CoV-1, or bat viruses, generated a more significant antibody response to key sites than using proteins from the virus that causes COVID-19.

“This was a pretty surprising and key finding and potentially suggests that maybe the ideal vaccine targets we should be using to protect people from COVID-19 could actually be proteins derived from related viruses rather than from the actual virus that causes COVID-19,” Burnett says.


Bad examples from America

As soon as Wall Street decided America had an inflation problem and would soon be putting up interest rates, our local geniuses decided we’d soon be doing the same.

Small problem – we don’t have a problem with inflation. Our money market dealers know more about the US economy than they know about their own. To them, we’re just a smaller, carbon copy of America. If you’ve seen America, you’ve seen ’em all.

The Americans have a lot of people withdrawing from the workforce – leaving jobs and not looking for another – which they’re calling the ‘Great Resignation’. Wow. Great new story. So, some people in our media are seizing any example they can find to show we have our own ‘Great Resignation’.

Small problem. Ain’t true. Following the rebound from the first, nationwide lockdown in 2020, our “participation rate” – the proportion of the working-age population participating in the labour force by have a job or actively looking for one – hit a record high. With the rebound from this year’s lockdowns well under way, the rate’s almost back to the peak.

A lot of America’s problems arise from the “hyperpolarisation” of its politics. Its two political tribes have become more tribal, more us-versus-them, more you’re-for-us-or-against-us. The two have come to hate each other, are less willing to compromise for the greater good, and more willing to damage the nation rather than give the other side a win. More willing to throw aside long-held conventions; more winner-takes-all.

The people who see themselves as the world’s great beacon of democracy are realising they are in the process of destroying their democracy, brick by brick – fiddling with electoral boundaries and voting arrangements, and stacking the Supreme Court with social conservatives.

Donald Trump continues to claim the presidential election was rigged, and many Republicans are still supporting him.

It’s not nearly that bad in Australia, but there are some on the ‘Right’ trying to learn from the Republicans’ authoritarian populism playbook.

When your Prime Minister starts wearing a baseball cap it’s not hard to guess where the idea came from. Or when the government wants to require people to show ID before they can vote, or starts stacking the Fair Work Commission with people from the employers’ side only. Enough.




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