WHO director-general says ‘the end is in sight’ for COVID pandemic

The world has never been in a better position to end the COVID-19 pandemic, the head of the World Health Organization said on Wednesday, urging nations to keep up their efforts against the virus that has killed over six million people.

“We are not there yet. But the end is in sight,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters at a virtual press conference.

The comment was the most optimistic from the UN agency since it declared COVID-19 an international emergency and started describing the virus as a pandemic in March 2020.

The virus, which emerged in China in late 2019, has killed nearly 6.5 million people and infected 606 million, roiling global economies and overwhelming healthcare systems.

The rollout of vaccines and therapies have helped to stem the severity of disease. Deaths from COVID-19 last week were the lowest since March 2020, the U.N. agency reported.

Still, countries need to take a hard look at their policies and strengthen them for COVID-19 and future viruses, Tedros said. He also urged nations to vaccinate 100% of their high-risk groups and keep testing for the virus.

The WHO warned of the possibility of future waves of the virus and said countries need to maintain adequate supplies of medical equipment and healthcare workers.

“We expect there to be future waves of infections, potentially at different time points throughout the world caused by different subvariants of Omicron or even different variants of concern,” said WHO’s senior epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove.

Monkeypox cases, too, were on a downtrend but Tedros urged countries to keep up the fight.

WHO officials said last month that it is possible to eliminate the monkeypox outbreak in Europe by stepping up vaccination and testing.

“As with COVID-19, this is not the time to relax or let down our guard.”

New study suggests steroids may change the structure of the brain

Steroids are able to change the structure of the brain and affect a person’s mood, according to a new study. 

Dutch researchers conducted the study by examining the brains of nearly 25,000 steroid users and non-users. The team found that those who inhaled or orally took glucocorticoids, a steroid that is prescribed to decrease inflammation, experienced changes to their brain’s white and grey matter. 

“This study shows that both systemic and inhaled glucocorticoids are associated with an apparently widespread reduction in white matter integrity,” said the study’s co-author Merel van der Meulen, who works at Leiden University Medical Center, in the paper published on Tuesday in the journal BMJ Open. Moreover, white matter is essential for the brain because it connects the cells with the body’s entire nervous system. An individual may have trouble processing information and remembering events if they have a lower than white matter. The study also linked white matter shortages to depression and anxiety. 

Patients have often been treated for diseases such as asthma, arthritis, and eczema with steroids, even though symptoms like depression and anxiety. However, more research is still needed to prove that steroids are to blame, the researchers note, but do “neuropsychiatric side effects observed in patients using glucocorticoid.”

The Dutch academics conducted the study by analyzing brain data of 24,885 people from UK Biobank, a population-based cohort study of adults recruited in the United Kingdom from 2006 until 2010. The database included only approximately 800 volunteers who used medicated steroids, while the vast majority of the database were non-steroid users. 

The most significant drop of white matter that affected the brain’s structure occurred through the usage of glucocorticoids by injection or tablets for long-term periods. Yet, even those who inhaled the steroids were still linked to lower processing speeds, and users had smaller amygdala grew matter volume. 

To the best of our knowledge, this is the largest study to date assessing the association between glucocorticoid use and brain structure, and the first to investigate these associations in inhaled glucocorticoid users,” the study concludes. “Since these medications are widely used, awareness of these associations is necessary across medical specialties and research into alternative treatment options is warranted.

New study suggests you should stop eating ultra-processed foods

Men living in the United States who regularly eat ultra-processed foods such as sodas, ice cream, sausage, and deep-fried chicken, are at a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer

A study published on Wednesday in The BMJ indicates that U.S. men are at 29% greater risk of being diagnosed with colorectal cancer if they consume large amounts of processed foods. Women, on the other hand, did not follow the same pattern, according to the study. 

One of the leading causes of cancer deaths worldwide is colorectal cancer. Moreover, over half of the daily calories that are consumed by U.S. adults originate in ultra-processed foods. 

“Processed meats, most of which fall into the category of ultra-processed foods, are a strong risk factor for colorectal cancer,” said the study’s author Lu Wang explained lead study author Lu Wang, a postdoctoral fellow at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, in a statement. “Ultra-processed foods are also high in added sugars and low in fiber, which contribute to weight gain and obesity, and obesity is an established risk factor for colorectal cancer.”

Researchers analyzed data from three other studies that included 200,000 men and women in the U.S. Every four years, the participants filled out a questionnaire that asked how often they would eat certain foods. Approximately 46,341 men and 159,907 women were included in this study, with 1,294 cases of colorectal cancer occurring in the men compared to 1,922 in women between 24 and 28 years. 

After adjusting for body mass index, the researcher determined that men who consumed the highest amounts of ultra-processed foods had a higher risk of being diagnosed with that particular cancer. The biggest risks for men were increased consumption of sugar-enriched drinks such as sweet tea and soda, along with meat, poultry, and seafood. 

The study could not determine the lack of association between cancer and consumption of highly processed foods in women. 

First human death of West Nile virus in Illinois in 2022 confirmed

The first human death in Illinois in 2022 from the West Nile virus was confirmed on Tuesday.

An unnamed individual in their late 70s passed away from the illness in Cook County, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed on Tuesday that WNV played a contributing role in the death and confirmed the diagnosis via laboratory testing.

“This unfortunate first reported death of the year from West Nile virus in Illinois is a reminder that this disease poses a risk, especially to those who have weakened immune systems,” said Dr. Sameer Vohra, Illinois health director. “While the weather is warm and mosquitos are breeding, we should all take precautions to protect ourselves from mosquitoes and the viruses they carry by wearing insect repellent and eliminating standing water around our homes where mosquitos breed.”

The department is able to surveil WNV in the state by inspecting the dead cows and birds as well as testing mosquito batches. Last year, there were approximately 48 counties in the state that reported the virus presence in animals. Meanwhile, five people died from the disease in 65 confirmed cases.

The disease usually spreads through the bite of a common house mosquito, called the Culex pipiens, which usually spreads the virus after sucking the blood of an infected animal. The health department notes that common symptoms from WNV include fever, nausea, headache and muscle pains that last days or weeks. However, an estimated four out of five people who test positive for the virus show no symptoms.

Severe cases of the disease may lead to meningitis or encephalitis, or death. West Nile virus is especially risky for individuals over the age of 50, who may have a higher chance of experiencing severe symptoms.

The IDPH states the first mosquito to test positive for the disease occurred on May 17. Additionally, three men over the age of 50 tested positive for WNV and were all hospitalized in New Jersey last week.

British scientists behind crucial COVID trial pivot to monkeypox treatment research

The British scientists behind one of the major therapeutic COVID-19 trials have turned their focus to treatments for monkeypox, a viral disease that has been labeled a global health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The team from Oxford University behind the so-called RECOVERY trial – which honed in on four effective COVID treatments – on Tuesday unveiled a new trial, dubbed PLATINUM, to confirm whether SIGA Technologies’ tecovirimat is an effective treatment for monkeypox.

Although there are vaccines developed for the closely related smallpox that can reduce the risk of catching monkeypox, there are currently no treatments that have been proven to help hasten recovery in those who develop the disease.

More than 40,000 confirmed cases of monkeypox – including a handful of deaths – in over 80 countries where the virus is not endemic have been reported since early May. Over 35% of the current global case count is in the United States, while the UK has over 3,000 confirmed cases.

The virus is transmitted chiefly through close contact with an infected person. It typically causes mild symptoms including fever, rash, swollen lymph nodes and pus-filled skin lesions. Severe cases can occur, though people tend to recover within two to four weeks, according to the WHO.

Siga’s drug, branded Tpoxx, has been cleared to treat diseases caused by the family of orthopoxvirus that includes smallpox, monkeypox and cowpox by the European Union and United Kingdom, but due to limited trial data it is generally only used in severe cases in Britain.

In the United States and Canada, the drug is only approved to treat smallpox.

Since smallpox has been eradicated, and cases of monkeypox and cowpox typically occur sporadically, studies to assess the effectiveness of the drug in infected people have so far not been carried out.

Instead, its effectiveness is based on studies in animals infected with lethal doses of orthopoxviruses, as well tests of the medicine’s effects in healthy humans.

The PLATINUM trial, funded by a 3.7 million pound ($4.35 million) UK government grant, aims to recruit at least 500 participants. Participants will either be given a 14-day course of tecovirimat twice daily, or a placebo.

To assess the drug’s effectiveness, the rate at which lesions heal, the time taken until patients test negative for the virus, and the proportion of patients who require hospitalization due to complications will be tracked.

“I’m hoping that we can have a result before Christmas, but it depends on the rate of recruitment,” said Sir Peter Horby, Professor of Emerging Infections and Global Health at the University of Oxford and the director of the new Pandemic Sciences Institute.

Earlier this month, U.S. officials indicated they were planning a randomized clinical trial in the country to determine whether tecovirimat should secure U.S. approval for monkeypox.

Siga, which sells an oral and intravenous formulation of the drug, has already received $60 million worth of orders for oral tecovirimat this year.

Meanwhile, the only approved monkeypox vaccine – made by Danish company Bavarian Nordic – is in short supply, pushing countries to stretch existing supplies.

Combo ‘polypill’ cuts heart disease deaths, new study finds

One pill may be better than three.

A heart medication known as a “polypill” reduced the chance of a secondary adverse cardiovascular event in individuals who previously had a heart attack, according to the findings of a study announced on Friday, August 26, at the European Society of Cardiology Congress (ESC 2022) in Barcelona, Spain.

The cardiovascular mortality rate was lowered by 33%, the study found.  

Published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the study found that the drug, bearing the commercial name Trinomia, contains three medications: aspirin (100 mg), the angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor ramipril (2.5, 5, or 10 mg) and atorvastatin (20 or 40 mg), according to a news release.

The Spanish National Center for Cardiovascular Research (CNIC) and Ferrer developed the polypill.

Currently, the polypill is not available in the United States. 

Dr. Valentin Fuster, M.D., director of Mount Sinai Heart and physician-in-chief of Mount Sinai Hospital as well as general director of CNIC, led the trial.

The study’s results demonstrate “for the first time that the polypill — which contains aspirin, ramipril and atorvastatin — achieves clinically relevant reductions in the recurrent cardiovascular events among people who have recovered from a previous heart attack,” he said in the release.

That’s “because of better adherence to this simplified approach with a simple polypill, rather than taking [pills] separately as conventional,” he went on.

Typically, after a patient recovers from a heart attack, doctors prescribe several medications, which may include an anti-platelet agent (such as aspirin), medication to control blood pressure and a lipid-reducing drug, such as a statin, the release said. 

The problem is that less than half of patients consistently adhere to their medication regimen, according to the study’s authors. 

“Although most patients initially adhere to treatment after an acute event such as an infarction, adherence drops off after the first few months,” Dr. Fuster said in the release.

He also explained, “Our goal was to have an impact right from the start, and most of the patients in the study began taking a simple polypill in the first week after having a heart attack.”

The study’s first author, Dr. José María Castellano, M.D., said in the report, “Adherence to treatment after an acute myocardial infarction is essential for effective secondary prevention.” 

Castellano also said in the release, “The polypill, [which is] a very simple strategy that combines three essential treatments for this type of patient, has proved its worth … The improved adherence means that these patients are receiving better treatment and therefore have a lower risk of recurrent cardiovascular events.”

In a previous study that was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC), CNIC scientists showed that patients treated with the polypill showed significant improvement when it came to adhering to treatment. 

The CNIC team of researchers investigated if the improved adherence to treatment with the polypill would lead to a reduction in cardiovascular events. 

The study used an international randomized clinical trial that included 2,499 patients from seven European countries recovering from a heart attack. 

The participants were randomly assigned the CNIC polypill or standard treatment medications. Participants averaged 76 years of age — and the study included individuals with a history of hypertension (77.9%), diabetes (57.4%) and smoking tobacco (51.3%).

The team of researchers followed the patients for an average of three years.

They analyzed the occurrence of four major cardiovascular events: death from a cardiovascular cause, non-fatal stroke, non-fatal myocardial infarction and need for emergency coronary revascularization, the report said. 

They found that the patients taking the polypills had a 24% lower risk of these four cardiovascular events than patients taking the three drugs separately, according to the release.

The researchers found that there were 71 deaths in the group that received standard treatment, compared to 48 in the polypill group.  

Patients in the polypill group also had a higher level of treatment adherence than those in the control group — which may explain the benefits of the polypill, the release said.

“The 33% reduction in cardiovascular mortality demonstrates the efficacy of treatment with Trinomia compared to standard treatment” Oscar Pérez, marketing chief and business development officer at Ferrer, said in the release. 

The treatment has the “potential to reduce the risk of recurrent cardiovascular disease and death on a global scale.”

“These results ratify our purpose of making a positive impact in society and represent an important step in our mission to provide significant and differential value to people who suffer from serious health conditions.” 

The polypill could become part of a worldwide treatment strategy, said Fuster, to help prevent recurrent cardiovascular events in patients who have had a heart attack.

Fuster also said, “By simplifying treatment and improving adherence,” this approach has the “potential to reduce the risk of recurrent cardiovascular disease and death on a global scale.”

A Mount Sinai Health Systems spokesperson told Fox News Digital that Fuster plans to present the findings to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

Omicron infects young children easier than other variants; loss of smell may be precursor to memory loss

The following is a summary of some recent studies on COVID-19. They include research that warrants further study to corroborate the findings and that has yet to be certified by peer review.

Childrens’ noses defend less well against Omicron

The Omicron variant may be more efficient at infecting children through the nose than previous versions of the coronavirus, a small study suggests.

Earlier in the pandemic, children’s noses had been less welcoming to the virus that causes COVID-19 than adults’ noses. Studies of the original SARS-CoV-2 and some of its variants found the virus was met with stronger immune responses in the cells lining young noses than in adults’ nasal-lining cells, and it was less efficient at making copies of itself in children’s noses. But recent test-tube experiments mixing the virus with nasal cells from 23 healthy children and 15 healthy adults found the antiviral defenses in kids’ noses “was markedly less pronounced in the case of Omicron,” researchers reported on Monday in PLOS Biology. They also report that Omicron reproduced itself more efficiently in childrens’ nasal-lining cells compared to both Delta and the original virus.

“These data are consistent with the increased number of pediatric infections observed during the Omicron wave,” the researchers wrote, while calling for additional studies.

Smell problems may predict memory problems after COVID-19

Severity of smell dysfunction after infection with the coronavirus may be a better predictor of long-term cognitive impairment than overall severity of COVID-19, according to an Argentinian study.

Researchers studied a random sample of 766 people over age 60, roughly 90% of whom had been infected with the virus. Physical, cognitive and neuropsychiatric tests performed three-to-six months after infection showed some degree of memory impairment in two-thirds of the infected participants. After taking individuals’ other risk factors into account, severity of loss of smell, known as anosmia, “but not clinical status, significantly (predicted) cognitive impairment,” the researchers reported on Sunday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2022 held online and in San Diego.

“The more insight we have into what causes or at least predicts who will experience the significant long-term cognitive impact of COVID-19 infection, the better we can track it and begin to develop methods to prevent it,” study leader Gabriela Gonzalez-Aleman of Pontificia Universidad Catolica Argentina in Buenos Aires said in a statement.

Vaccine mandates linked to better nursing-home staffing

In U.S. states that mandated COVID-19 vaccines for nursing home staff, the rules achieved the desired effect and did not lead to mass resignations and or staffing shortages, a study found.

In states without such mandates, however, nursing homes did experience staff shortages during the study period, researchers reported on Friday in JAMA Health Forum. Data collected from mid-June to mid-November 2021 from the National Healthcare Safety Network showed that in 12 states with COVID-19 vaccine mandates, staff vaccination coverage rates ranged from 78.7% to 95.2%. States without mandates “had consistently lower staff vaccination coverage throughout the study window” and “higher rates of reported staff shortages throughout the study period,” according to the report.

“The association of mandates with higher vaccination coverage stands in contrast with prior efforts to increase COVID-19 vaccine uptake among nursing home staff through education, outreach, and incentives,” the researchers said. They added that the data “suggests that the fear of massive staffing shortfalls owing to vaccine mandates may be unfounded.”

Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine linked to death in South Africa, health regulator reports

South Africa’s health regulator reported on Thursday a causal link between the death of an individual and Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) COVID-19 vaccine, the first time such a direct link has been made in the country.

The person presented with rare neurological disorder Guillain-Barre Syndrome soon after being given J&J’s Janssen vaccine, after which the person was put on a ventilator and later died, senior scientists told a news conference.

“At the time of illness no other cause for the Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) could be identified,” Professor Hannelie Meyer said.

The person’s age and other personal details were not disclosed for confidentiality reasons.

J&J said in an emailed statement that GBS was associated with the administration of various vaccines and other medicines and can also be triggered by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The company said it strongly supported raising awareness of the signs and symptoms of rare events to ensure they can be quickly identified and effectively treated.

Last July, U.S. authorities added a warning to a factsheet for J&J’s vaccine saying data suggested there was an increased risk of GBS in the six weeks after vaccination. At the time it noted 100 preliminary reports of GBS in vaccine recipients, including 95 serious cases and one reported death.

J&J said at the time of the U.S. warning it was in discussions with regulators and the rate of reported cases of GBS in Janssen vaccine recipients exceeded the background rate only slightly.

“The benefit of vaccination still far outweighs the risk,” Boitumelo Semete-Makokotlela, chief executive of the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA), told reporters.

“In our context we have administered about 9 million (doses) of the Janssen vaccine, and this is the first causally linked case of GBS.”

Europe’s medicines regulator last year added GBS as a possible side-effect of AstraZeneca’s COVID vaccine which, like J&J’s, uses viral vector technology.

South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla told Thursday’s news conference that as of mid-July there had been just over 6,200 “adverse events” reported to SAHPRA out of the more than 37 million COVID vaccine doses administered in the country, equivalent to 0.017%.

Semete-Makokotlela said the regulator had assessed around 160 deaths since the COVID vaccination rollout started but had not seen a causal link to vaccination until now.

South Africa has been using shots from J&J and Pfizer in its COVID vaccination campaign. The rollout got off to a slow start due to difficulties securing supplies and protracted negotiations with pharmaceutical companies, but more recently it has been slowed by hesitancy.

Around 46% of its adult population of 40 million is now fully vaccinated.

Cognitive decline can be avoided with simple everyday exercises

While scientists have always recommended physical activity to keep the brain healthy, research now shows regular stretching and motion exercises can help older people with mild memory troubles. 

Researchers at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine recruited 300 adults with mild cognitive decline to do aerobic and stretching-and-balance exercises. The groups were split up based on those two exercises, twice a week with a personal trainer, and trained two additional times a week on their own over a 12-month period. 

The study was presented on Tuesday at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in San Diego, California. All the participants had some form of mild cognitive impairment, one of the first stages of dementia, and lived sedentary lifestyles. 

Overall, both groups completed 31,000 exercise sessions, claimed the study’s author, Laura Baker. At the end of the experiment, none of the group members had experienced cognitive decline, while a control group with similar participants with mild cognitive impairment who did not work out did decline.

Baker told the Associated Press the results from the stud indicate “this is doable for everybody,” especially for seniors who have a limited physical exercise routine. Moreover, she recommends that exercise “needs to be part of the prevention strategies” for elderly citizens already at risk. 

Maria Carrillo, the chief scientist at the Alzheimer’s Association, told the AP that research in the past has indicated daily physical activity has helped reduce inflammation in the brain and increase the amount of blood flowing to it. 

Baker also noted that having a social group or a network of support was crucial for the elder participants. 

Participants were routinely given support while being active at their YMCA facilities, and regular video call sessions were set up after Covid-19 shut down the gyms, according to the Associated Press. 

Australia’s health care system strained by record number of COVID patients as Omicron surges

The number of Australians admitted to hospitals with COVID-19 hit a record of about 5,450 on Monday, official data showed, as the spread of highly contagious new Omicron subvariants strains the healthcare system nationwide.

The figure has grown since late June, as the BA.4 and BA.5 strains became dominant since they can evade immune protection, whether from vaccination or prior infection, while some experts say the latter can be as infectious as measles.

The number of those in hospitals is the highest since the emergence of the coronavirus, exceeding January’s high of 5,390 during the first wave of Omicron infections. Daily death tolls have also risen, topping 100 on Saturday for the first time.

More than 1,000 retirement homes have suffered outbreaks, the government said, as the elderly are largely affected.

With several aged care centers battling a shortage of staff, the support of defense personnel in such facilities is to be extended until the end of September, Defense Minister Richard Marles said.

“It is an extreme measure and it’s right to describe it as that,” he told ABC television. “Given the number of outbreaks that we’ve got right now, this is the right thing to do.”

Many frontline workers in hospitals are also sick or in isolation, worsening the healthcare crisis.

During a harsh winter with both COVID-19 and the flu virus circulating, authorities have recommended the use of masks indoors and urgent booster doses of vaccine, while telling businesses to allow work from home.

Australia, one of the countries most heavily vaccinated against COVID-19, has given two doses to about 95% of those older than 16, although just about 71% have had booster shots.

Still, its tally of about 9.13 million infections and 11,181 deaths was lower than many developed economies.