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Daily Archives: January 1, 2022

Chart: COVID-19 Cases Exploded in Many Countries Before the End of 2021

Source : Our world in Data

Chart: Wage Growth Surged in the US and UK, and to a Lesser Extent in the Euro Area

Source : Goldman Sachs

Chart: U.S. Office Occupancy Rates Are Still Far from Normal

Source : Vox

In Pictures: Euro 1971 BMW 3.0CSi 5-Speed

Source : Bring A Trailer

Dominant Alpha Variant Evolved to Evade our Innate Immune System

Published in Nature, the study shows the Alpha variant, first identified in the UK, evolved to make more of its ‘antagonism proteins’ that nullify the body’s first line of defence, known as the ‘innate immune system’.

Every cell in the nose, throat and lungs (airways) have a network of sensors that detect incoming viruses. When this happens the cells produce the protein interferon, which acts like a ‘burglar alarm’ and orchestrates a blanket anti-viral response, across both non-immune and immune cells (T cells and antibodies) to avert infection. But antagonism proteins can help the virus to evade these sensors.

This novel discovery is the first to identify evolution of enhanced antagonism protein expression in any virus and the first to implicate mutations in SARS-CoV-2 that increase infectiousness but do not involve the ‘spike’ protein

Scientists say the breakthrough findings provide a powerful insight into how SARS-CoV-2 is evolving, and offer a fresh clue to help identify new and emerging Variants of Concern, which are both highly transmissible and infectious.

Co-first author Dr Lucy Thorne (UCL Division of Infection & Immunity) said: “We wanted to know what made the SARS-CoV-2 Alpha variant special. How had it evolved from the first wave strain identified in Wuhan, China, and what features did it have that allowed it to spread around the world and become the first variant of concern?

“We found that that the SARS-CoV-2 Alpha variant had adapted to avoid triggering our defensive frontline innate immune response much better than the first wave viruses. We discovered it does this by making more of the virus proteins that can disable the innate immune system. These proteins are called N, Orf6 and Orf9b and are known as innate immune antagonists.

“By mutating to evade our innate immune system, the Alpha variant can replicate under the radar in the early stages of infection, which we think significantly increases its chances of infecting a person when it lands in their nose, throat or lungs. For a virus this is a resounding success, enabling it to more efficiently spread from person to person.”

For the study, researchers added samples of Alpha (B.1.1.7 lineage) to lab-grown lung cells – to mimic the cells infected by the virus in the body. Scientists then measured how much the virus grew and assessed whether the innate immune system was activated (or to what degree) by measuring the amount of interferon produced.

Researchers observed that the levels of interferon produced during Alpha infection were far lower than all earlier SARS-CoV-2 variants, which had principally seen mutations to the ‘spike’ protein.

To pinpoint exactly why Alpha was compromising the innate immune system, collaborators at the Quantitative Biosciences Institute (QBI), including co-senior author and director of QBI Nevan Krogan and co-first authors Mehdi Bouhaddou and Lorena Zuliani-Alvarez, looked at how the proteins expressed in Alpha differed from previous variants. By measuring all of the proteins and all of the RNA in infected cells, they found antagonism proteins N, Orf6 and Orf9b, which are present in all coronaviruses and whose function is to dampen down cell responses, were ‘dialled up’ in the Alpha variant.

Researchers believe this increase in antagonism proteins is the result of numerous mutations in the regulatory regions of SARS-CoV-2, which control protein expression levels.

Commenting on the findings, co-senior author Professor Greg Towers (UCL Division of Infection & Immunity), said: “We have never seen anything like this before; we know viruses adapt and we expect to see the proteins adapting so they work better in humans. But Alpha is using its antagonism proteins, that help evade detection a little bit, and cranking up how much it makes. That is unique.

“The real value of our discovery is showing how this incredible virus evolved from the initial SARS-CoV-2 strain, and it also helps us understand how our protective innate immunity works.”

In preliminary research, the team has identified that some of the mutations to the regulatory regions of SARS-CoV-2 found in Alpha are present in the subsequent Variants of Concern, Delta and Omicron, but it is believed these variants succeeded primarily due to mutations in the spike protein.

Source: University College London

Chart: Inflation and Inflation Expectation Rising Around the World

Source : Goldman Sachs

China’s Smallest Firms Failing at Historic Pace as 4.37 million Close Up Shop and Registrations Plummet

Ji Siqi wrote . . . . . . . . .

About 4.37 million of China’s smallest businesses permanently shut their doors in the first 11 months of the year – more than three times the number of new ones that opened during the same time, according to data obtained by SCMP.

Figures from public registry tracking firm Tianyancha also show that, for the first time in two decades, the rate of deregistration among micro and small businesses surpassed the number of those newly registered in China.

The data is particularly relevant given that Beijing considers the nation’s more than 40 million micro and small firms the “backbone” of China’s private sector, underpinning the national economy. Their struggles are a reflection of broader economic headwinds that analysts say could see gross domestic product (GDP) drop below 4 per cent in the fourth quarter of this year.

During the annual central economic work conference earlier this month, Beijing warned that growth was facing “threefold pressure” of contracting demand, supply shocks and weakening expectations.

It is likely that the number of deregistered companies this year will also exceed that of last year – 4.45 million – which was already a historical high at almost double the rate in 2019 and about 10 times that of 2018, Tianyancha’s data showed.

Each month this year, an average of 397,435 micro and small companies closed in China, surpassing the monthly average of 370,782 last year, when the country was hit hard by the initial outbreaks of Covid-19 that led to widespread lockdowns and the nation’s first quarterly GDP contraction since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976.

Nonetheless, 2020 still saw more micro and small firms opening – 6.13 million – than closing, even though that figure marked a sharp decline after several years of growth. And the decline was exacerbated in 2021, as only 1.32 million new micro and small firms opened in the first 11 months of this year.

In their role as the nation’s economic backbone, smaller enterprises account for half of China’s tax revenue, 60 per cent of its GDP and 80 per cent of urban employment.

But they have also suffered the brunt of the economic downturn brought by the pandemic, despite tax and fee cuts from the government.

China’s ongoing zero-tolerance strategyfor controlling the coronavirus has stifled consumption, and sporadic outbreaks have resulted in lockdowns. Meanwhile, fresh challenges continue to mount, including high raw-material prices; soaring freight costs; regulatory crackdowns on technology, education and property sectors; and a power crunch that has affected more than half of the nation’s provinces.

Meanwhile, Zhang noted that there could be a delayed impact on unemployment and bankruptcy rates, which could help explain why the problem is much worse this year than last year.

“Usually those small businesses will carry on at first, but when it comes to the second year, when the cumulative impacts from the deteriorating business environment get even worse, they may see no end in sight, especially amid the zero-tolerance policy,” Zhang said. “Then they go ahead and close their businesses.

Source : SCMP

N95 Masks: A Must-have With Omicron, But Fakes Abound

Steven Reinberg wrote . . . . . . . . .

You’re watching the Omicron variant race around the world and think it might be time to upgrade your mask to a gold-standard N95 or K-N95 model. A quick search on Google should find you one, right?

Not so fast, experts say.

According to Anne Miller, executive director of the nonprofit group Project N95, the masks that offer the most protection are indeed the N95 and the K-N95 — both are approved by the U.S. government to block 95% of the new coronavirus.

But she warned that there are lots of counterfeits out there.

The U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) tests masks to be sure they meet the standards for what’s called “filtration rate,” she explained. As the pandemic began, lots of masks were submitted to NIOSH for approval as companies sought to cash in on surging demand.

Only a few succeeded.

“Some of those masks were like 20% filtration,” Miller noted. In fact, “over 60% of the masks that were submitted did not pass NIOSH tests — they did not perform,” she said.

“From my perspective as a consumer, I don’t want to shell out my money and get something that I think is protecting me that isn’t and then I have a false sense of security — and then I get sick,” Miller added.

That doesn’t mean that all imported N95 and the K-N95 masks are junk. But they all have to meet NIOSH standards, Miller said.

Check the numbers

To be sure that any masks you buy is authentic, Miller advises consumers to look for the TC number on N95 masks. “It says TC – and then three more digits and then two digits and also a lot number,” she said. Real N95 masks also come with a head strap.

For K-N95 masks, Miller said the mask should say: “GB 2626 – 2019 then a space and then K-N95. If it does not have that printed on the face of the mask, it is not made to the standard.”

Also, the mask should have a brand name on it, Miller said. “When you see a mask that just says K-N95 and no brand, you have no way to know who actually produced it, and that is not good.”

Are there other warning signs that a mask might be fake?

Miller said one surefire clue is if the labeling claims the mask is FDA-approved or it’s registered with the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration).

“If you see the FDA logo on the box, if you see somebody marketing their product as FDA-approved, that is almost a guarantee that it is a substandard or counterfeit product,” Miller said in a statement. “If you’re registered, you’ve paid $5,400 to be registered, and that’s it … the FDA website says that registration does not connote any sort of approval.”

Also watch out for a mask with no markings at all, no NIOSH markings or NIOSH is spelled incorrectly, decorative fabrics and any claims of NIOSH approval for children (NIOSH does not approve respiratory products for kids).

Cost not a factor

Miller stressed that price is not an indicator as to whether a mask is the real thing or not: High-grade masks do not have to be expensive.

“You can buy a U.S.-made N95, NIOSH-rated respirator for 60 or 75 cents, so you don’t have to spend a lot of money,” she said.

It is important to change masks often, as they wear out and become less effective, Miller said. For most people, it’s good to have several masks that can be rotated. Each mask is good for approximately 40 hours of wear, Miller said.

The trick with N95 and K-N95 masks is maintaining a good seal. Many people may find an N95 uncomfortable, so they may be better off with a K-N95, which has ear loops and may be easier to tolerate.

“They’re not designed for comfort,” Miller said. “They’re designed for performance.”

Fit is key

As for other masks, such as cloth ones, Miller says they can be used over a high-grade mask as a fashion statement or to keep a mask clean, but they really don’t offer enough a lot of protection by themselves.

The best way to be sure you’re getting a good mask is to buy them from a reliable source, Miller said.

Infectious disease expert Dr. Marc Siegel, a clinical professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, stressed that “masks are not the end-all and be-all of protection.”

They can help ward off infection, but they need to be worn properly and changed frequently. “By worn properly, I mean a tight fit over the nose,” Siegel said.

He acknowledged that N95 masks can be uncomfortable to wear and difficult to use, but K-N95 or N95 masks do offer the best protection.

“When we say up your mask game, that means going to a K-N95 or an N95,” Siegel said.

Source: HealthDay