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Study names animals likely to cause next big COVID outbreak

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Study names animals likely to cause next big COVID outbreak

Cats, rabbits and hedgehogs have all been implicated in a new study that aims to predict the animals most likely to launch the next deadly COVID-19 outbreak.

With the help of artificial intelligence, biologists were able to design a prediction model that could prioritize potential hosts of virus strains already known to exist, but have not yet reached humans.

“We want to know where the next coronavirus might come from,” said Dr. Marcus Blagrove, a University of Liverpool virologist who worked on the study, BBC reported.

Their findings, published in Nature Communications on Tuesday, describe how artificial intelligence was used to predict previously unsuspected animal hosts of a novel — and potentially deadly — coronavirus strain.

Finding which of the 876 potential mammal species might host one — but often dozens — of the possible 411 strains was the easy part. The trick was parsing out species that could harbor two strains at once, creating a breeding ground for a powerful mutant virus.

“One way [viruses are] generated is through recombination between two existing coronaviruses,” said Blagrove. “So two viruses infect the same cell and they recombine into a ‘daughter’ virus that would be an entirely new strain.”

Animals such as the civet, common hedgehog, European rabbit, dromedary camel, some primate species and domesticated pigs and cats were named prime suspects for recombination of SARS-CoV2 — the strain that caused COVID-19 — with perhaps dozens of other coronaviruses. These creatures join the list of usual suspects, including bats and pangolins.

Recombination has already been observed in some of these species, according to previous studies cited in the new report. But to identify novel sources for those as-yet undiscovered “daughter” strains, the algorithm based its assessment on biologic similarities between known hosts and their related species, according to lead researcher Dr. Maya Wardeh.

“We were able to predict which species had the chance for many coronaviruses to infect them,” she explained. “Either because they are very closely related [to a species known to carry a coronavirus] or because they share the same geographical space.”

Scientists hope these findings will help encourage more thorough monitoring of how and where the wild meets the human world, as researchers point out that viral “spill over” from animals to people is mostly the result of reckless human activity.

“This is not a reason to demonize these species,” said Dr. Wardeh.

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California coronavirus vaccination site gives thousands wrong vaccine dosage

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California coronavirus vaccination site gives thousands wrong vaccine dosage

An estimated 4,300 in California individuals received a smaller coronavirus vaccine than they should have due to an issue with syringes.

According to KTVU, the Oakland Coliseum site received orange-capped syringes that left a third of the vaccine stuck on the bottom of the plastic container. The problem was eventually detected on Monday but individuals vaccinated before that point reportedly only received 0.2 mL of the Pfizer vaccine instead of the optimal 0.3 mL.

The California Office of Emergency Services, which helps run the site with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said high-level meetings were held on Tuesday afternoon after whistleblowers alerted the issue.

Cal OES spokesman Brian Ferguson reportedly said he didn’t think anyone was formally underdosed and that there wasn’t any need to contact the individuals who received the lower vaccine amount.

On Wednesday, he said authorities were told that the dosing fell within medical guidelines and protocols.

Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert, reportedly said the patients were “likely protected” and could make up the lost dosage in the second round of vaccine dosing.

The incident came as Gov. Gavin Newsom expressed optimism over the state’s vaccination efforts.

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CDC warns to avoid indoor gatherings this St. Patrick’s Day

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CDC warns to avoid indoor gatherings this St. Patrick’s Day

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is advising against close, indoor gatherings with non-household members ahead of St. Patrick’s Day, in an effort to prevent further coronavirus spread.

“Attending gatherings to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day increases your risk of getting and spreading COVID-19,” the health agency says. “The safest way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year is to gather virtually, with people who live with you, or outside and at least 6 feet apart from others.”

Americans should postpone travel and consider staying home to reduce infection risk, the CDC advises.

Public health experts continue to urge mask use, physical distancing, hand hygiene and prompt vaccination as doses become available. Officials have doubled down on these calls as more transmissible variants continue to emerge and circulate.

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Tourism groups in Thailand petition to reopen country to international travelers

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Tourism groups in Thailand petition to reopen country to international travelers

Thailand’s tourism sector wants to reopen the country to visitors this summer. 

On Tuesday, tourism groups in Thailand launched the #OpenThailandSafely campaign, asking the country to allow travelers with proof of a COVID-19 vaccine into the country without quarantine requirements by July 1. 

“As Thailand is starting to vaccinate its most vulnerable and its healthcare workers, we believe that now is the time to announce a firm and irreversible date to reopen its borders,” a petition to the Thai government says. “This will give confidence to international travelers and encourage them to book a trip to Thailand.”

“Thai tourism operators, especially those reliant on international travel, would then be able to start business planning, accept forward bookings, start to rehire staff, and conduct training programs,” the petition adds. “Without a firm commitment to reopening made now, Thailand may lose all of 2021 as travelers will make plans for alternative destinations.”

The petition – which is seeking 100,000 signatures to be sent to the Thai Prime Minister, the Minister of Tourism and Sports and the Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand – has 2,268 supporters as of Tuesday night.

According to a letter published with the campaign, Thailand tourism and related industries have been “decimated” by the closure of international travel into the country because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“The financial, social, physical and psychological health of Thai people has been adversely affected,” the letter said. “The disruption of travel has not just impacted tourism, but also torn families apart and greatly reduced international trade.”

“The current situation is unsustainable,” the letter added.

Campaign organizers believe that by July 1, vaccines will be widely available “in many source markets,” according to the letter. 

Organizers also believe that if the government makes a commitment now to opening its borders for travelers by July 1, that will give people enough time to plan and book their travel, it will give tourism companies enough time to prepare to restart operations and it will give the Thai government enough time to vaccinated front line health care workers and vulnerable citizens.

“It will take Thailand at least a year, and maybe a lot longer, to return to the large numbers of international visitors that it had before the Covid-19 crisis,” the letter said.

In the letter, campaign organizers also suggested several potential “safeguards” that international travelers could be asked to follow in order to visit the country, including “showing officially recognized proof of a Covid-19 vaccination from their home country, purchasing health insurance, showing proof of a negative Covid test within 72 hours of departure, and so on,” the letter said.

“The 1 July reopening would be a strategic opportunity for Thailand to show a leadership role among Asian countries and prepare the way for a solid recovery of the Thai economy in 2022,” the letter added.

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