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Covid-19: Which animals can spread the coronavirus?

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Water buffalo, Sunda pangolins and mink are among the 540 mammals predicted to be likely to spread the coronavirus based on their biology and where they live



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17 November 2021

Water buffalo are among animals thought likely to be able to spread the coronavirus

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An AI tool has predicted 540 mammalian species that are most likely to spread covid-19 using information about where they live and aspects of their biology.

According to the model, mink, Sunda pangolins and bats are among the top 10 per cent of species most likely to spread covid-19, which matches results from lab experiments.

The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes covid-19, invades human and animal tissues by engaging the ACE2 protein on host cells with its spike protein. This step is required to infect an animal, a prerequisite for potential onward transmission to other hosts.

Distinct species have different versions of the ACE2 protein, so understanding how well their version binds to the coronavirus spike protein can help us predict which animals are most likely to get, and hence possibly spread, covid-19. But the amino acid sequences that make up ACE2 are available for only around 300 species.

To get around this, Barbara Han at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York and her colleagues built a machine-learning tool to predict whether the ACE2 protein from 5400 mammalian species can bind strongly enough to the spike protein from the original coronavirus variant to harbour the virus, even without knowing their ACE2 amino acid sequences.

The species predicted to be able to do this include white-tailed deer, which were recently found to have very high rates of infection in North America.

Striped skunk and 76 rodent species including some species of rat and deer mice were also deemed likely to spread the coronavirus, along with some farmed species such as water buffalo.

To create the model, the team first estimated how strongly the spike protein binds to the ACE2 protein from 142 mammalian species for which ACE2 sequences are known, and whether or not these species are likely to spread the coronavirus.

They fed the AI information on transmissibility and around 60 ecological and biological traits for the 142 species so it could discern links between transmissibility and the various traits. The traits included where the animals live, how much their habitats overlap with human populations, their lifespan, how varied their diet is and their body mass.

The resulting model, when given biological and ecological trait data for the other species, could then guess the likelihood of the 5400 mammalian species studied being able to spread the coronavirus.

These results must be followed up with systematic surveillance and lab studies to test and validate the predictions, says Han.

“This is an incredibly useful approach to prioritise animal species for surveillance,” says Arinjay Banerjee at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. Surveillance will help track viral infections and the possible emergence of animal-adapted coronavirus variants, he says.

Journal reference: Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2021.1651

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Solar storms may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in a given year

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In an approximate 11-year cycle, the sun blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field, which may disrupt our body clock and ultimately affect our heart



Health



17 June 2022

A solar storm

Jurik Peter/Shutterstock

Solar storms that disrupt Earth’s magnetic field may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in the US in a given year.

The sun goes through cycles of high and low activity that repeat approximately every 11 years. During periods of high activity, it blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field.

These so-called solar storms can cause glitches in our power grids and bring down Earth-orbiting satellites. A handful of studies have also hinted that they increase the risk of …

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UK Covid infection rate rising, with more than a million cases in England | Coronavirus

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Coronavirus infections are rising in the UK, figures have revealed, with experts noting the increase is probably down to the more transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, reveal that in the week ending 11 June an estimated one in 50 people in the community in England are thought to have had Covid – around 1.13 million people.

The figure is even higher, at one in 45, in both Wales and Northern Ireland, while it was highest in Scotland where, in the week ending 10 June, one in 30 people are thought to have been infected.

While the figures remain below the peak levels of infection seen earlier this year, when around one in 13 people in England had Covid, the findings are a rise on the previous week where one in 70 people in England were thought to be infected. Furthermore, the data reveals increases in all regions of England, except the north-east, and across all age groups.

Experts say that a key factor in the increase is probably the rise of the Covid variants of concern BA.4 and BA.5.

“Infections have increased across all four UK nations, driven by rising numbers of people infected with the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants,” said Kara Steel, senior statistician for the Covid-19 Infection Survey.

While Steel said it remained too early to say if this was the start of another wave, others have warned it may already have begun, with increased mixing and travelling among other factors fuelling a rise in cases.

Among concerns scientists have raised are that BA.4, BA.5 and another variant on the rise, BA.2.12.1, replicate more efficiently in human lung cells than BA.2.

Prof Azra Ghani, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said the latest figures were not surprising, and might rise further.

“This increase in infection prevalence is likely due to the growth of the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, which as we have seen elsewhere in Europe, appear to be able to escape immunity generated from previous Omicron subvariants,” she said.

“It is therefore possible that we will continue to see some growth in infection prevalence in the coming weeks and consequently an increase in hospitalisations, although these subvariants do not currently appear to result in any significantly changed severity profile. This does however serve as a reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over.”

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NHS to offer women in England drug that cuts recurrence of breast cancer | Breast cancer

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Thousands of women in England with breast cancer are to benefit from a new pill on the NHS which reduces the risk of the disease coming back.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has given the green light to abemaciclib, which cuts the chance of breast cancer returning after a patient has had surgery to remove a tumour.

Trials showed that patients who had the drug with hormone therapy had a more than 30% improved chance of their cancer not coming back after surgery, compared with hormone therapy alone.

“It’s fantastic thousands of women with this type of primary breast cancer will now have an additional treatment option available on the NHS to help further reduce the risk of the disease coming back,” said Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of charity Breast Cancer Now.

“The fear of breast cancer returning or spreading to other parts of their body and becoming incurable can cause considerable anxiety for so many women and their loved ones.

“New effective treatments such as abemaciclib, which can offer more women the chance to further reduce the risk of the disease recurring, are therefore extremely welcome and this is an important step change in the drug options available for this group of patients.”

The twice-a-day pill is suitable for women with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative, node-positive early breast cancer at high risk of recurrence who have had surgery. About 4,000 women will benefit initially, Nice said.

Helen Knight, the interim director of medicines evaluation at Nice, said the draft recommendation came less than a month after abemaciclib received its licence.

“The fact that we have been able to produce draft recommendations so quickly is testament to the success of our ambition to support patient access to clinically and cost effective treatments as early as possible,” said Knight. “Until now there have been no targeted treatments for people with this type of breast cancer.

“Abemaciclib with hormone therapy represents a significant improvement in how it is treated because being able to have a targeted treatment earlier after surgery will increase the chance of curing the disease and reduce the likelihood of developing incurable advanced disease.”

Abemaciclib works by targeting and inhibiting proteins in cancer cells which allow the cancer to divide and grow. It normally costs £2,950 for a packet of 56 150mg-tablets, but the manufacturer, Eli Lilly, has agreed an undisclosed discounted price for NHS England.

“Thanks in part to this latest deal struck by NHS England, NHS patients will be able to access another new targeted drug for a common and aggressive form of breast cancer,” said Prof Peter Johnson, the cancer director of NHS England.

“Abemaciclib, when used alongside a hormone therapy, offers a new, doubly targeted, treatment option, helping to increase the chances of beating the cancer for good, as well as meeting the NHS’s commitment to delivering improved cancer care under our long-term plan.”

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