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We’ve seen the Alpha, Kappa and Delta variants cross our borders, but it turns out another strain of the virus that causes COVID-19 has reached our shores.
The Lambda variant is one of 11 official SARS-CoV-2 variants recognised by the World Health Organization
It was first detected in Peru and has spread to 29 countries, including Australia
A new study that has yet to be peer-reviewed found signs that the variant could be more infectious and harder to tackle with vaccination, but it’s early days
The variant, named Lambda by the World Health Organization (WHO) last month, was detected in an overseas traveller who was in hotel quarantine in New South Wales in April, according to national genomics database AusTrakka.
Some reports suggest the new variant could be fast spreading and difficult to tackle with vaccines. So what sets this variant apart from others and should we be concerned?
A Chilean team of scientists analysed blood samples from health workers in Santiago who had received two doses of the CoronaVac vaccine developed by Sinovac Biotech in China.
They found the Lambda variant has a mutation called L452Q, which is similar to the L452R mutation seen in the Delta and Epsilon variants.
As the L452R mutation is thought to make Delta and Epsilon more infectious and resilient against vaccination, the team concluded that Lambda’s L452Q mutation might also help it spread far and wide.
While it’s possible that Lambda is indeed more infectious than other variants, it’s too early to know for sure, said Kirsty Short, a virologist at the University of Queensland.
“It’s very preliminary,” said Dr Short, who was not involved in the study.
“It’s a good starting point, but I certainly wouldn’t infer anything from that into the clinic.”
Are vaccines still effective against the Lambda variant?
The study also found signs that Lambda’s unique spike mutations could help it slip past the body’s immune response.
The results of the study suggested that the CoronaVac vaccine produces fewer neutralising antibodies — proteins that defend cells against infections — in response to the Lambda variant.
But according to Paul Griffin, who specialises in infectious diseases and vaccines at the University of Queensland, it’s important to remember that these antibodies are just one aspect of immunity.
“We know that [neutralizing antibodies] only tell a part of the story,” said Dr Griffin, who was not involved in the study.
“If that further immunity remains intact, then even with a reduction in neutralizing antibodies, sometimes that protection can still be enough.”
It’s also worth remembering that different vaccines work in different ways to respond to the virus and its variants.
“You can’t really extrapolate from one vaccine,” Dr Short said.
CoronaVac uses inactive versions of SARS-CoV-2 to kick the immune system into gear.
On the other hand, Pfizer contains a single strand of the genetic code that builds the virus’s spike proteins, while AstraZeneca contains a double-strand.
Dr Griffin said that more traditional inactivated vaccines like CoronaVac have proven to be less effective overall than others.
“As a broad category, the inactivated ones have been a little bit underwhelming, particularly compared to others that have such high rates of efficacy,” said Dr Griffin, who was not involved in the study.
While not much is known about how effective the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are against Lambda, their response to the Delta variant can offer clues.
A recent study from the UK found that two doses of either Pfizer or AstraZeneca are over 90 per cent effective at preventing hospitalisation due to the Delta variant.
Should Australia be worried?
While there has only been one case of Lambda recorded in hotel quarantine in Australia so far, it’s worth keeping an eye on the emergence and spread of SARS-CoV-2 variants around the world, Dr Short said.
“There’s a reason why it’s a variant that we’re watching and looking into more, but it’s certainly not at a point of panic or anything like that.”
Dr Griffin added that Lambda would need to out-compete Delta to become a major concern. “That’s certainly not what we’re seeing,” he said. But as more people get infected, the more chance the virus has to evolve into new variants, Dr Short said.
The best way to tackle this is to focus on getting more people vaccinated, not just in Australia, but globally. “What this should emphasise to everyone is that we need global effort in the vaccination campaign,” Dr Short said.
Australia’s economy will record its first recession since 1991 as the hit from China’s virus-induced slowdown is amplified by slumping confidence and domestic disruptions from the outbreak intensifying Down Under, according to Bloomberg Economics’s James McIntyre.
Gross domestic product will fall 0.4 percentage point in the first three months of the year and 0.3 percentage point in the second quarter, ending a 28-1/2-year stretch of economic growth, he said in a report Monday.
“Isolations and domestic disruptions to contain the spread of the virus will have a mounting economic impact, which is likely to result in a further GDP contraction in 2Q and potentially beyond,” McIntyre said. “Stimulus, both fiscal and monetary, will help to reduce the damage, but is unlikely to be enough to offset the impacts.”
GDP will expand by just 0.4% in 2020, he forecasts, some 1.5 percentage points below his pre-coronavirus estimate.
The Reserve Bank cut interest rates last week and money markets are pricing in a further reduction in April, which would bring it to the estimated lower bound of 0.25% and open the door to unconventional policy. The government is finalizing a fiscal “boost” that could amount to A$10 billion ($6.6 billion) to support firms struggling with cash flow and help them keep on employees.
McIntyre predicts large budget deficits ahead as the automatic stabilizers — increased welfare payments and reduced tax collection — begin to take hold. That’s on top of the fiscal stimulus needed to boost demand and confidence.
Alan Oster, chief economist at National Australia Bank Ltd., expects the RBA will deploy unconventional policy as early as May, after reducing the cash rate to its estimated lower bound of 0.25% in April.
He sees the preferred option as yield-curve control — setting a target level for government bond yields at a specific duration — with the aim of flattening the yield curve and lowering the cost of debt funding.
An all-out price war between the world’s biggest oil producers is adding to the prospect of a recession as the coronavirus wreaks havoc across the world. Panic reigned in currency markets Monday as orders from traders and algorithmic machines snowballed.
That saw the Australian dollar plunge almost 5% in less than 20 minutes, the biggest one-day decline since 2008. Australia’s benchmark S&P/ASX 200 stock index slumped 7.3%.
The Treasury and RBA estimate the impact on tourism and education from China’s shutdown and other virus fallout will cut 0.5 percentage point from GDP in the first quarter. That doesn’t include supply chain disruptions and is in addition to a 0.2 point cut from wildfires over summer.
The Economic Impact of the Wuhan Coronavirus Outbreak
China’s economy is grinding to a halt as the government scrambles to stop the spread of the deadly Wuhan coronavirus, fueling fears that efforts to contain the outbreak will have worldwide economic consequences.
Bill Evans, chief economist at Westpac Banking Corp., revised his economic growth forecasts Monday and predicts contractions in the first and second quarters of 0.3% respectively, before a sharp rebound in the second half.
McIntyre said the comparison with the 2003 SARS epidemic is problematic because of the massive increase of China’s importance to both the Australian and global economies. He notes that in the Australian Dollar Trade-Weighted Index of the exchange rate, the weighting of the renminbi rose to 30%, higher than any other currency in the 36-year history of the gauge.
The channels through which the reduction in domestic activity transmits during a pandemic were laid out in a 2006 Treasury paper whose author is Steven Kennedy, the current secretary to the Australian Treasury. That analysis saw the economy contracting 5% in the first year.
Transmission of the virus in Australia is now occurring, meaning disruptions and shutdowns of aged-care facilities, child-care centers and schools. Health authorities anticipate several months of disruptions from the virus.
The economy will bounce back, McIntyre said, noting that fourth-quarter GDP released last week showed several segments turning around, including housing and mining investment. China is also set to stimulate its economy, which traditionally benefits Australia.
Property prices Down Under have surged since late last year when the RBA resumed easing.
“How Australia’s housing market weathers the virus outbreak will be a key area of interest given the earlier downturn in construction activity,” he said. “Australia’s resources sector also stands well placed to benefit from a resumption of activity in China’s construction sector and stimulus measures.”
(DETROIT) — General Motors says it’s pulling out of Australia, New Zealand and Thailand as part of a strategy to exit markets that don’t produce adequate returns on investments.
The company said in a statement Sunday that it will wind down sales, engineering and design operations for its historic Holden brand in Australia and New Zealand in 2021.
It also plans to sell its Rayong factory in Thailand to China’s Great Wall Motors and withdraw the Chevrolet brand from Thailand by the end of this year.
GM has 828 employees in Australia and New Zealand and another 1,500 in Thailand, the company said.
CEO Mary Barra says the company wants to focus on markets where it can drive strong returns. She says GM will support its employees and customers in the transition.
The company said it will scale back operations in all three countries to selling niche specialty vehicles. It also will make the same move in Japan, Russia and Europe, where “we don’t have significant scale.”
“We are pursuing a niche presence by selling profitable high-end imported vehicles supported by a lean GM structure,” International Operations Senior Vice President Julian Blissett said in the statement.
GM said it will honor all warranties in the markets, and it will continue to provide service and parts. Local operations also will handle recalls and any safety-related issues, the company said.
The Detroit automaker expects to take $1.1 billion worth of cash and noncash charges this year as it cuts operations in the three countries.
GM has a long history in Australia with the Holden brand, where cars were designed and sold in the U.S. and other markets. The 2008 and 2009 Pontiac G8 muscle car, for instance, was designed as a Holden Commodore and built in Australia.
But GM said Holden’s market share, which was nearly 22% in 2002, fell to just over 4% last year.
GM President Mark Reuss, who once ran the Australian operations, said the company explored options to continue Holden, “but none could overcome the challenges of the investments needed for the highly fragmented right-hand-drive market, the economics to support growing the brand, and delivering an appropriate return on investment,” he said in the statement.
The company also said it analyzed the business case for future production at the Rayong plant Thailand, but low use of the plant and expected low sales volumes “made continued GM production at the site unsustainable.”
GM has struggled in Asia in the past year. It’s International Operations, which include China, lost $200 million last year, including $100 million in the fourth quarter.
After learning the sad truth that GM would be pulling out of Australia as a manufacturer of automobiles, there were several loose ends that needed clarifying in regards to the outcome of the situation and solutions to, well, make the best of it.
An unprecedented disaster is unfolding as the fiercest bush fires on record continue to wreak havoc across large parts of Australia. A total of 26 people have died, more than 2,000 homes have been destroyed and an estimated 1 billion animals have been killed.
Thousands have been forced from their homes by the Australian bushfires; air quality is hazardous
First responders are struggling to contain the massive fires, which have scorched millions of acres of land across Australia since October. The most affected state, New South Wales, is having its worst fire season in 20 years. Thousands of residents have fled their homes, and smoke from the bush fires is darkening the skies, creating hazardous air quality in Sydney, Australia’s largest city.
As first responders battle the blaze, UNICEF Australia is working with partners to help traumatized children recover and get back to school
In a humanitarian emergency, children are always the most vulnerable. UNICEF Australia is working at the local level with both individual state ministries and NGOs to provide support for Australia’s children in three areas:
Helping children in very vulnerable families affected by the fires get back to school by replacing their personal electronic and other school materials
Developing a trauma kit to be distributed to teachers, parents and others providing emotional and psychological support for children
Extending advocacy and inclusion work that began during the severe drought season, bringing together young people to understand how the climate emergency is affecting them and helping them advocate for their needs to the government. This has already resulted in commitments to improve child-focussed support through schools — including mental health first aid in every school
Extreme weather conditions exacerbated by climate change are fueling the flames — and the passion of young environmental activists
Michael Mann, Director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, said, “If anything, 2019 saw even more profound extreme weather events around the world than , including wildfires from the Amazon through to the Arctic, devastating out-of-season, simultaneous wildfires in California and Australia, winter heat waves and devastating superstorms. With each day now we are seemingly reminded of the cost of climate inaction in the form of ever-threatening climate change-spiked weather extremes.”
Climate change will only bring more severe weather events, and young people want to be a part of the solutions and plans that are devised and funded. UNICEF will be there every step of the way to support the rights of young people to be heard and to help them advocate for the changes needed to protect the environment and create a world fit for children.
UNICEF disaster preparedness and risk reduction programs help protect communities from the impact of climate change
UNICEF has decades of experience responding to and preparing for emergencies. Working with partners around the world, UNICEF protects children from the impact of climate change-related crises and supports disaster preparedness and risk reduction programs to make vulnerable communities more resilient.
“The biggest reason for hope,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore wrote in an Open Letter to the World’s Children in 2019, “is because you — the children and young people of today — are taking the lead on demanding urgent action, and empowering yourselves to learn about and shape the world around you. We want to work together with you to find the solutions you need to tackle the challenges of today, to build a better future for yourselves and the world you will inherit.”
Sarah Ferguson is the Senior Editor for Content and Social Media at UNICEF USA. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, New York Magazine, Vogue and Elle, among other publications.