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COVID-free Tonga hit with virus outbreak after accepting aid deliveries

For more than two years, the isolation of the Pacific archipelago nation of Tonga helped keep COVID-19 at bay.

But last month’s volcanic eruption and tsunami brought outside deliveries of desperately needed fresh water and medicine — and the virus.

Now the country is in an open-ended lockdown, which residents hope will help contain the small outbreak and will not last too long.

“We have pretty limited resources, and our hospitals are pretty small,” Tongan business owner Paula Taumoepeau said Friday. “But I’m not sure any health system can cope. We are lucky we’ve had two years to get our vax rate pretty high, and we had a pretty immediate lockdown.”

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Tonga is only one of several Pacific countries to experience their first outbreaks over the past month. All have limited health care resources, and there is concern that the remoteness that once protected them may now make helping them difficult.

“Clearly when you’ve got countries that have already got a very stretched, and fragile health system, when you have an emergency or a disaster and then you have the potential introduction of the virus, that’s going to make an already serious situation immeasurably worse,” said John Fleming, the Asia-Pacific head of health for the Red Cross.

Tonga was coated with ash following the January 15 eruption of the massive undersea Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, then hit with a tsunami that followed.

Only three people have been confirmed killed, but several small settlements in outlying islands were wiped off the map and the volcanic ash tainted much of the drinking water.

The nation of 105,000 had reported only one case of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic — a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionary returning to the island from Africa via New Zealand who tested positive in October — and authorities debated whether to let international aid in.

They decided they had to, but despite strict precautions unloading ships and planes from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Britain and China, two Tongan men who worked at the capital’s Queen Salote Wharf handling shipments tested positive on Tuesday.

“Tonga is just out of luck this year,” said Samieula Fonua, the chairman of Tonga Cable Ltd., the state-own company that owns the sole fiber-optic cable connecting the nation to the rest of the world. “We desperately need some good news.”

The two were moved into isolation, but in tests of 36 possible contacts, one’s wife and two children also tested positive, while the others tested negative, the local Matangi Tonga news site reported.

It was not clear how many people might have come into contact with the dockworkers, but the government released a list of locations where the virus could have spread, including a church, several shops, a bank and a kindergarten.

Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni imposed an open-ended lockdown starting 6 p.m. on Wednesday. It could be arduous for Tongans because most have been without any internet connections since the volcanic eruption severed the fiber optic cable to the country.

One of the infected dock workers has since tested negative, but remains in quarantine, and 389 others have been cleared of COVID-19, Sovaleni told reporters in Tonga. But he said Friday that a primary contact to one of the people infected had tested positive, and ordered the lockdown extended another 48 hours.

The government has been primarily communicating with residents by radio addresses, and Fonua said his crews estimate they may have to replace an 87-kilometer (54 mile) section of undersea cable. They were hoping to restore service by next week.

It is not yet known what variant of the virus has reached Tonga, nor who brought it in. Officials have stressed that the aid deliveries were tightly controlled, and that it is not yet proven the virus came in that way.

Sailors aboard the Australian aid ship HMAS Adelaide reported nearly two dozen infections after an outbreak on board, but authorities said it had been unloaded at a different wharf. Crew members aboard aid flights from Japan and Australia also reported infections.

“The people are OK with the lockdown because they understand the reason why, so the corona doesn’t spread over our little country,” Tulutulu Kalaniuvalu, a 53-year-old former police official who runs a business, told The Associated Press. He added that most Tongans depend on crops they grow on plantations and hope the lockdown is short-lived.

Experience from elsewhere, especially with the prevalence of the rapidly spreading omicron variant, suggests that Tonga faces an uphill battle in trying to contain the outbreak, Indonesian epidemiologist Dicky Budiman told the AP.

Some 61 percent of Tongans are fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data, but because the country has not yet seen any infections, there’s no natural immunity and it is not clear whether the shots were given long enough ago that they may now be less effective, Budiman said.

He recommended that the government immediately start offering booster shots and open vaccinations to younger children.

“If we race with this virus we will not win,” he said in an interview from Australia. “So we have to move forward by protecting the most vulnerable.”

The October case of the missionary with COVID-19 prompted a wave of vaccinations, and 1,000 people already showed up for a first dose after the current outbreak was detected, Kalaniuvalu said.

Outbreaks in the Pacific

Solomon Islands reported its first community outbreak on January 19. With only 11 percent of its population fully vaccinated, the virus has been spreading rapidly with the Red Cross reporting that less than two weeks later, there are now more than 780 recorded cases and five COVID-19 related deaths.

Elsewhere, Fiji — still reeling from damage caused by Cyclone Cody in early January — has been battling an ongoing spike in cases, fueled by omicron, and cases have been reported for the first time in Kiribati, Samoa and Palau.

Palau has nearly its entire population fully vaccinated, while Fiji has 68 percent and Samoa 62 percent, but Kiribati is only at 33 percent.

The key to ensuring hospitals aren’t overwhelmed is to make sure more people get shots, Budiman said.

“These countries that choose to have this COVID-free strategy, they are very vulnerable,” he said.

Kalaniuvalu said some people have questioned the decision to let the ships carrying aid in to Tonga, but most feel it was necessary to help through the aftermath of the volcano and tsunami, and that the islanders now just had to do their best to minimize the impact of the outbreak.

“To be honest with you, we were one of the luckiest countries in the world for almost three years, now it’s finally here in Tonga,” he said.

“We, the people of Tonga, knew sooner or later the coronavirus would come to Tonga because the corona is here to stay.”

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Morinaga Milk Obtains FDA GRAS Notification for its Probiotic

Bifidobacterium infantis M-63 for use in Infant Formula and General Foods

TOKYO–(BUSINESS WIRE/AETOSWire)– Morinaga Milk Industry Co., Ltd. (TOKYO:2264), a leading Japanese dairy product company, today announced its proprietary probiotic Bifidobacterium longum subsp. infantis M-63 has received FDA GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status relating to its use in term infant formula and general foods.

On April 26, 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued the company with a GRAS Notice known as a ‘no objection letter’, stating it has no questions regarding the safety of the probiotic strain B. infantis M-63 when used in infant formula and general foods (GRAS Notice No. GRN 001003). The probiotic strain meets the highest standards of safety and regulatory compliance and can be used as an ingredient in powdered infant formula for term infants, and in certain general foods.

Bifidobacterium infantis M-63 is a unique Human-Residential Bifidobacteria (HRB) probiotic strain with an immense capacity to utilize human milk oligosaccharide (HMOs), the component that is highly abundant in human breast milk. HMOs offer no direct nutritional value for infants, but they function in shaping a better infant gut microbiota with life-long impacts. Backed by clinical evidence, B. infantis M-63 shows great promise in improving the colonization of bifidobacteria in the infant gut and has superior potential for infant use.

All three HRB strains with Infant GRAS status
Morinaga Milk is some way ahead of the curve in the research of HRB – the natural inhabitants of the human gut that exhibit numerous superior physiological functions. The company has developed and offered three HRB strains (B. longum BB536, B. breve M-16V, and B. infantis M-63) for infant use. Morinaga Milk is highly committed to achieving global regulatory standards for its HRB probiotics range and became the only Japanese company to have obtained the Infant GRAS notification for its all three HRB probiotic strains. B. infantis M-63 is the third strain to have obtained the Infant GRAS status, following B. longum BB536 in 2019 and B. breve M-16V in 2013. The three HRB strains are now with Infant GRAS status.

“This official GRAS notification demonstrates our commitment to offering high safety and quality HRB probiotic strains. We are incredibly proud to have our probiotic strain M-63 receiving the GRAS notification. It is the third strain to have Infant GRAS status,” said Dr. Yoshihiko Ushida, General Manager of International B to B Business Department of Morinaga Milk. “This approval in the United States is a regulatory milestone. It speaks highly of the quality and safety of M-63 and its solid scientific evidence. We are looking forward to the potential implications of this new status,” he added.

M-63 is also GRAS for use in general foods
In addition to its GRAS approval for use in infant formula, B. infantis M-63 has also received the FDA GRAS notification for use in general foods and beverages. The GRAS notification covers the use of M-63 in a range of food and beverage products, including bread and baked goods; ready-to-eat and hot breakfast cereals; fruit juices, nectars, and blends; dairy products and dairy substitutes; candy; condiment sauces; gelatin desserts; peanut and other nut butter and spreads; snack foods; and infant and toddler foods. As substantiated in human clinical studies, M-63 possesses not only superior potential for infant use but also in helping to boost mental health in adults with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The potentials of M-63 in supporting human health and its application opportunities are very much exciting.

Under the Morinaga Milk Group’s 10-Year Vision, the company aims to achieve an overseas sales ratio of 15% or more by the fiscal year ending March 2029. The company will continue its effort in developing and providing effective HRB probiotics with a higher level of safety and quality and aim to strengthen its probiotic sales in the global marketplace to help achieve the goal.

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UAE reports 1,796 new COVID-19 cases, no deaths

The UAE announced 1,796 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, the official Emirates News Agency reported.

This brings the current total active cases in the UAE to 17,551 and the total number of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic to 949,384, according to data from the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA).

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The cases were determined out of 232,943 tests in the last 24 hours.

No deaths from the virus were recorded on Saturday, maintaining the total deaths caused by COVID-19 to 2,317 in the UAE.

At least 1,727 patients recovered in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total COVID-19 recoveries to 929,516.

On June 13, the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA) announced it would strictly enforce its mask rules – with penalties for those flouting the protocol – and announced it would tighten its rules on the Al Hosn green pass system amid rising coronavirus cases across the country.

NCEMA said that it has recently “monitored some behaviors that have become a danger to society and public health,” referring to people not adhering to COVID-19 precautionary and preventative measures and how it has “negatively” impacted recovery efforts.

“Negligence and recklessness in following precautionary measures, and failure in the societal role in maintaining public health and acquired immunity, has resulted in a rise in the number of infections and new waves of the virus,” the authority spokesman said in the briefing.

The authority reaffirmed the need to wear masks in closed public spaces, reiterating that it was mandatory and that not adhering to this rule would result in a fine of up to $816 (AED 3,000).

According to the World Health Organization, more than 4.1 million cases were reported globally in the last week.

It added, however, that the worldwide number of deaths remained relatively similar to the week before, at about 8,500, noting that COVID-related deaths increased in three regions: the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Americas.

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Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccines could increase protection as boosters: EMA

Coronavirus vaccines tweaked to include the omicron variant strain can improve protection when used as a booster, the European Medicines Agency and other global health regulators said on Friday.
Following a meeting on Thursday, the EMA said global regulators had agreed on key principles for updating COVID-19 shots to respond to emerging variants.
While the existing coronavirus vaccines continue to provide good protection against hospitalization and death, the group said, vaccine effectiveness has taken a hit as the virus has evolved.
For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.
As such, an omicron-specific or bivalent booster – meaning a vaccine that includes both the new strain and the original coronavirus strain – could “increase and extend” protection, a statement from the EMA said.
The statement refers specifically to the mRNA vaccines. Both Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc have been testing retooled versions of their vaccines to include the omicron variant.
Vaccines which include other variants, for example the beta variant, might also be considered for use as boosters if clinical trial data demonstrate an adequate level of neutralization against omicron and other variants of concern, the statement said.
It follows guidance from the World Health Organization that omicron-specific boosters could restore protection against emerging strains of the coronavirus.
But it stops short of the position of the regulator in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which said on Thursday that it would seek the inclusion specifically of the newer BA.4 and BA.5 strains of omicron, currently driving a surge in new infections globally, in any new shots for use domestically.
On Tuesday, the head of a WHO advisory committee that has considered the modified shots said the group preferred BA.1-based boosters, arguing that the variant is more distinct and could generate a broader response than the more recently circulating subvariants.
Top US FDA official Peter Marks said in an interview that regulators from other countries were seriously considering using new boosters based on the BA.1 omicron variant that caused the massive surge in cases last winter, because those shots can be available sooner than the BA.4/5 based booster the United States plans to use.
The EMA said it would provide more details in coming days.
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US secures 105 million doses of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for fall

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