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Today’s coronavirus news: Merck says experimental pill cuts worst effects of COVID-19; Outbreak decalred at Toronto East Detention Centre

The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Friday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

6:15 a.m.: Merck & Co. said Friday that its experimental COVID-19 pill reduced hospitalizations and deaths by half in people recently infected with the coronavirus and that it would soon ask health officials in the U.S. and around the world to authorize its use.

If cleared, Merck’s drug would be the first pill shown to treat COVID-19, a potentially major advance in efforts to fight the pandemic. All COVID-19 therapies now authorized in the U.S. require an IV or injection.

Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said early results showed patients who received the drug, called molnupiravir, within five days of COVID-19 symptoms had about half the rate of hospitalization and death as patients who received a dummy pill. The study tracked 775 adults with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who were considered higher risk for severe disease due to health problems such as obesity, diabetes or heart disease.

Among patients taking molnupiravir, 7.3% were either hospitalized or died at the end of 30 days, compared with 14.1% of those getting the dummy pill. There were no deaths in the drug group after that time period compared with eight deaths in the placebo group, according to Merck. The results were released by the company and have not been peer reviewed. Merck said it plans to present them at a future medical meeting.

6:05 a.m.: Japan fully came out of a coronavirus state of emergency for the first time in more than six months as the country starts to gradually ease virus measures to help rejuvenate the pandemic-hit economy as the infections slowed.

At Tokyo’s busy Shinagawa train station, a sea of mask-wearing commuters rushed to their work despite an approaching typhoon, with some returning to their offices after months of remote work.

The emergency measures, in place for more than half of the country including Tokyo, ended Thursday following a steady fall in new caseloads over the past few weeks, helping to ease pressure on Japanese health care systems.

Outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga thanked the people for their patience and cooperation, and asked them to stick to their basic anti-virus measures.

“Once again, I seek your cooperation so that we can return to our daily lives feeling safe,” he said.

5:45 a.m.: Toronto Public Health has declared a COVID-19 outbreak at Toronto East Detention Centre in Scarborough, according to a spokesperson from the Ministry of the Solicitor General.

Ontario is reporting 34 active COVID-19 cases among inmates at the correctional facility, as of Thursday.

According to provincial data, the detention centre reported four confirmed cases on Sept. 12. By Sept. 23, there were 17 active cases. An additional 17 confirmed infections were reported Monday.

Located near Eglinton Avenue East and Birchmount Road in Scarborough, the correctional facility has a capacity of 473 inmates.

Read more from the Star’s Joshua Chong.

5:30 a.m.: Somalia has opened the country’s first public oxygen plant as the Horn of Africa nation with one of the world’s weakest health systems combats COVID-19.

The oxygen plant was installed Thursday at a hospital in the capital, Mogadishu. It is expected to produce 1,000 cylinders of oxygen a week.

The scarcity of medical oxygen has hurt response efforts across many African nations as the delta variant of the coronavirus now drives the bulk of infections on the continent of 1.3 billion people.

Insecurity in Somalia poses an added challenge to efforts to fight the pandemic. A COVID-19 ward recently set up at the hospital was partially destroyed weeks ago in an attack by the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group, which controls parts of Somalia and frequently targets the capital.

Part of the work around the oxygen plant’s installation focused on repairing that damage.

Somalia has one of the highest case fatality rates from COVID-19 in Africa, and few measures are enforced to slow the spread of the virus.

5:15 a.m.: Saskatchewan’s proof-of-vaccination policy is now in effect, meaning residents will have to show they have been immunized or have a negative COVID-19 test to access several businesses and event venues.

Public service employees are also required to provide proof of vaccination or provide a negative COVID-19 test result at least every seven days.

It comes a day after Saskatchewan recorded its highest daily case count of COVID-19 and its highest number of people needing intensive care.

Businesses that will be requiring proof of vaccination include restaurants, bars, nightclubs, theatres, casinos and entertainment venues.

Children under the age of 12 are exempt from the requirements.

5 a.m.: On Thursday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has announced about 35 out-of-province health-care staff will be brought in to help deal with the province’s growing COVID-19 crisis.

The move comes after the premier spent the week resisting calls from health-care professionals for a hard circuit-breaker lockdown in the province as well as playing down the immediate need for outside help.

But at a press conference on Thursday, Kenney said Alberta was working to bring in five or six workers from Newfoundland and Labrador, eight to 10 from the Canadian Armed Forces and about 20 from the Canadian Red Cross. The workers would likely head to Fort McMurray, Edmonton and Red Deer to assist with the province’s overwhelmed ICUs, Kenney said.

“It’s a helping hand,” said Kenney. “It will help to provide some relief. In some of our hospitals, that is very welcome.”

For weeks, Alberta has been grappling with the worst COVID-19 crisis in the country. About 200 additional ICU beds have been opened up while hospitals have struggled to keep up with the onslaught of mostly unvaccinated patients being admitted.

Read more from the Star’s Kieran Leavitt.

4:30 a.m.: A third school district in British Columbia has announced its own policy extending a provincial mask mandate for kindergarten-to-Grade 3 students starting Monday.

The Burnaby School District followed the lead of the Vancouver and Surrey districts in mandating masks for all grades as concerns mount about the rising number of COVID-19 infections among children who are not eligible for vaccination.

The district says in a letter sent to parents Thursday that the Burnaby Board of Education made a unanimous decision on the change after requesting an urgent meeting Wednesday night with Dr. Ariella Zbar, the medical health officer of Fraser Health.

“Her assurance that masks are an effective layer of protection for all students when used in concert with other health and safety measures informed the board’s decision to promptly implement this new mask requirement,” the letter says.




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