Friday, February 10, 2023

University of Sydney scientists make ‘crazy’ Covid-19 discovery

The COVID public health emergency is coming to an end, and even thought you might not have been following protocols recently, this will still affect you and your wallet.
Australian scientists have made an incredible discovery that could change the way we view Covid — and could explain why some people suffer serious illness with the virus, or even death, while others never get sick or appear symptomless.

University of Sydney researchers discovered a protein in the lung that blocks Covid infection and forms a natural protective barrier in the human body.

The naturally occurring protein, LRRC15, works by attaching itself to the virus, stopping Covid particles from binding with more vulnerable cells - as well as reducing the chance of infection.

The research offers a promising pathway to develop new drugs to prevent Covid or deal with fibrosis in the lungs.

The study led by Professor Greg Neely found that this new receptor acts by binding to the virus and sequestering it which reduces infection.

“For me, as an immunologist, the fact that there’s this natural immune receptor that we didn’t know about, that’s lining our lungs and blocks and controls viruses, that’s crazy interesting,” Professor Neely said.

“We can now use this new receptor design broad acting drugs that can block viral infection or even suppress lung fibrosis.”

How it works

The Covid-19 virus infects humans by using a spike protein to attach to a specific receptor in our cells. It primarily uses a protein called the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor to ender human cells.

Lung cells have high levels of ACE2 receptors, which is why the Covid-19 virus often causes severe problems in this organ.

Like AEC2, LRRC15 is a receptor for Covid meaning the virus can bind to it. But unlike ACE2, LRRC15 does not support infection.

It can however stick to the virus and immobilise it.

Researchers believe patients who died from Covid did not produce enough of the protein, or produced it too late to make a difference.

“We think it acts a bit like Velcro, molecular Velcro, in that it sticks to the spike of the virus and then pulls it away from the target cell types,” another researcher Dr Lipin Loo said.

The breakthrough comes as millions of Australians are now eligible for a fifth Covid vaccine within a fortnight.

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation has recommended that all people aged 18 and over receive a top-up jab, no matter how many doses they’ve already received, as long as they have not been infected with the virus in the last six months.

Up to four million Australians are estimated to have been struck down with Covid-19 just in the past four months.

More than 2600 Australians have died with the virus since October. Around 800 of those deaths were aged care residents.


Reserve Bank signals more rates pain in months ahead

Investors are bracing for a potential recession amid weak economic indicators and a series of interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve. Here's what to do to protect your money.
Australians can expect more interest rate hikes in the coming months as the Reserve Bank says it will do “what is necessary” to drive down inflation.

In its quarterly statement on monetary policy, released on Friday, the central bank said it remained “resolute” in its determination to return inflation to its target range of between 2 and 3 per cent.

Inflation in Australia is sitting at 7.8 per cent, its highest level since 1990.

The RBA raised the cash rate by a further 25 basis points to 3.35 per cent on Tuesday in its ninth consecutive rate hike since May last year.

And the bank has now indicated it expects to raise interest rates at least twice more as it tries to dampen inflation by cooling consumer spending.

The bank said on Friday its board was mindful a considerable adjustment to interest rates had already been made and acknowledged some households were struggling.

“Some households have substantial savings buffers or are benefiting from the tight labour market and faster wages growth,” it said.

“Others, though, are experiencing a painful squeeze on their budgets due to higher interest rates and the rising cost of living.”

Nevertheless, the bank said it was of the view it was better to deal with high inflation now to try to ensure the economic pain felt by Australians was only temporary.

“If high inflation were to become entrenched in people’s expectations, it would be very costly to reduce later,” it said.

“The board expects that further increases in interest rates will be needed to ensure that the current period of high inflation is only temporary.”

The bank offered a glimmer of hope, saying inflation was likely to have peaked around the end of 2022 — in line with the federal government’s forecasts.

The RBA said it expected inflation return to the target range “over the coming years”, with the consumer price index forecast to drop to 4.75 per cent over 2023 and to around 3 per cent by mid-2025.

The bank said it would be paying close attention to developments in the global economy, trends in household spending and the outlook for inflation and the labour market.

But it said there were still “considerable uncertainties” surrounding the outlook and therefore around the level of interest rates needed to achieve the board’s objectives, suggesting it hasn’t settled on a peak for its cash rate target.

The cash rate set by the RBA guides the amount of interest banks have to pay on the money they borrow from one another, which lenders then pass on to customers by raising or decreasing their own interest rates on mortgages and other loans.

In its statement on Friday, the central bank also gave some insight into its decision to raise the cash rate to 3.35 per cent earlier in the week, saying it was expecting near-term underlying inflation to be higher than previously thought.

The bank has revised its expected annual trimmed mean inflation in June 2023 upwards from 5.5 per cent to 6.25 per cent.

The RBA now expects trimmed mean inflation to end the year at 4.25 per cent, up from 3.75 per cent it was forecasting just three months ago.

Trimmed mean inflation — or underlying inflation — differs from the more widely-publicised consumer price index (CPI) in that it excludes some of the more volatile price movements.

The CPI reached an annual rate of 7.8 per cent in the December quarter, its highest in 32 years


Millions of satellite images reveal how beaches on the Pacific vanish or replenish in El Niño and La Niña years

If you've been visiting the same beach for a few summers, you'll have seen it change.

While beaches look static, they're actually one of the most dynamic regions on Earth. Winds, waves and tides stir and push sand around constantly. Storms can claw out huge volumes of sand and move it elsewhere.

On top of these changes is a hidden force — the El Niño Southern-Oscillation (ENSO) climate cycle. Our new research explores how this cycle affects beaches around the Pacific Rim. Using cutting-edge satellite technology, we tracked changes over 40 years.

Wild weather could leave beaches in ruin
Australians along the east cost are bracing for yet another round of heavy rainfall this weekend, after a band of stormy weather soaked most of the continent this week.

What did we find? The cycle matters a great deal. While the natural ENSO Pacific climate phenomenon affects weather patterns around the world, we haven't fully understood how it affects beaches.

The main impact? Coastal storms intensified by the ENSO cycle. Storms can rapidly strip sand from beaches to create sandbars, dump it out at sea, or replenish another beach. These changes threaten to undermine beachfront properties and roads as well as beach habitats.

For Australia, if a La Niña is predicted to arrive in the next six months, coastal communities prone to erosion should prepare for storms stripping away sand. Our recent repeat La Niñas brought large waves and heavy erosion along the New South Wales and southern Queensland coast. During this period, houses almost fell into the sea on the NSW Central Coast, while wild waves made a new passage through Bribie Island.

During El Niño cycles, Australia's beaches recover, while beaches from California to Chile erode.

But as climate change ramps up, the effects of these ENSO cycles may become more intense.

We analysed millions of satellite images, looking for changes in beach width during El Niño and La Niña periods in south-east Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Mexico, California and Japan.

Lying in the satellite data was clear evidence of cyclical change. Along south-east Australia's coastline, beaches tended to erode during prolonged La Niña periods, while regaining sand and recovering during El Niño years.

The fight to stop coastal erosion in this Australian town
For decades, residents along a section of suburban Australian coastline have witnessed their beach dissolve before their eyes, sometimes literally dropping into the sea. It's a problem that is also confronting coastal towns throughout the country.

The reverse was true on the other side of the Pacific, around 13,000 kilometres away. From California down through Mexico to Chile and Peru, we saw beaches narrow during El Niño periods and widen out again during La Niña periods.

Why? Storms and sea levels. During El Niño events, large storms develop in the northern Pacific, sending energetic waves crashing onto the coastlines of California and Mexico — creating the perfect conditions for big wave surfing. During this period, the sea level is well above average too. Combined, bigger waves, storms and a higher baseline pillage sandy beaches. This is particularly pronounced in the eastern Pacific.

Knowing this, we can be better prepared. If you're in Australia and the ENSO outlook suggests a La Niña is coming, it might be time for councils to replenish erosion prone beaches.

Monitoring the many moods of a beach

Monitoring coastal change has long been carried out with on-ground techniques, such as GPS equipment, quad bikes and drones. These methods require human operators, which makes them expensive and limits the area and duration of observations. That's why we have very limited on-ground observations of beach change along much of the world's coastline.

That's where satellites can help. Earth observation satellites have been capturing regular images of the world's coastlines for four decades. Now we have the tools to interrogate the satellite images and track the evolution of sandy beaches.

We developed the open-source tool CoastSat to automatically map the position of the shoreline on freely available satellite images, using cutting-edge image processing and machine learning techniques.

With tools like these, we can monitor coastal changes across thousands of beaches over the last 40 years. You can see how your local beach has changed on the interactive CoastSat website.


Tanya Plibersek killed off Clive Palmer's coal mine. It's an Australian first

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has formally rejected mining magnate Clive Palmer’s proposed Central Queensland Coal Project. Her decision was based on the risk of damage to the Great Barrier Reef, freshwater creeks and groundwater.

The 20-year open-cut mine project would have extracted up to 10 million tonnes of metallurgical coal – used to make steel – each year.

Plibersek’s decision is significant. It’s the first time a coal mine has been refused in the two decades our federal environment law has been in place. But those hoping the decision sets a precedent for other mine proposals are likely to be disappointed.

Palmer’s mine was not refused on climate change grounds. Objectors to coal mines will still need to persuade the federal government of the link between future coal mine developments and global warming.

Australia’s federal environment law is known as the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. It came into force in 2000 to provide federal oversight of large projects.

Under the law, proponents must refer a proposal to federal environment authorities if it’s likely to significantly impact so-called “matters of national environmental significance”. These matters include the Great Barrier Reef.

But it’s extremely rare that any development is refused under the EPBC Act. As of July last year, more than 7,000 projects had been referred to the federal government under the law, for assessment of the proposal’s impacts. Just 13 were ultimately refused.

So why did Palmer’s proposed mine cross this exceptional hurdle for refusal? Largely because of its location. The proposed site was just ten kilometres from the Great Barrier Reef world heritage area.

Explaining the decision on Wednesday, Plibersek said:

[…] risks to the Great Barrier Reef, freshwater creeks and groundwater are too great. Freshwater creeks run into the Great Barrier Reef and onto seagrass meadows that feed dugongs and provide breeding grounds for fish.

The thin end of the wedge?

Plibersek’s decision has triggered calls for the federal government to reject other fossil fuel projects.

For example, Greens environment spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young on Wednesday described Plibersek’s decision as “the thin edge of the wedge”. She went on:

There [were] 118 new coal and gas projects in the pipeline. One down, 117 to go.

From Narrabri’s double-whammy new coal and gas projects, Woodside’s North West Shelf offshore gas extension, billionaire miner Gina Rinehart’s proposed CSG expansion in the Surat Basin, or the Mount Pleasant coal project extension in the Hunter, the Minister has many projects left to rule out.

However, persuading the federal minister to reject these mines will not be easy. That’s because the law contains no explicit requirement for the minister to consider the climate change impacts of a proposal.

This certainly hasn’t stopped litigants from challenging projects on climate grounds. But to date, none have succeeded.




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