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Federal agency racks up big expenses after scientists reject web meetings

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A federal agency that funds medical science is racking up large travel and hospitality bills after Canadian researchers snubbed a plan to replace face-to-face meetings with cheaper “virtual” online conversations.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) has been spending an average of $2,600 a day on meals and refreshments this year alone, even as the rest of Ottawa keeps a tight rein on such expenses.

Travel and hospitality costs at the agency hit a record $4.7 million in 2017-2018, more than double the previous year’s sum.

The surge in costs followed a controversial plan hatched in 2016 to replace expensive in-person panels assembling Canadian medical researchers in Ottawa with web-based teleconferences. The panels decide which among hundreds of research applications should get funding.

The virtual meetings sparked a revolt by health scientists, who launched a social media protest and signed a public letter opposing the change that was sent to the health minister at the time, Jane Philpott.

Some 1,200 scientists signed a 2016 protest letter to then-health minister Jane Philpott, demanding a web-based meeting system be abandoned. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

About 1,200 scientists endorsed the letter. They said participants in the online meetings were too distracted and unprepared, having not read the detailed applications.

“By contrast, scientists do not come to physical meetings unprepared and they are 100% focused on the review discussion,” said the June 27, 2016 letter to Philpott.

The letter described face-to-face meetings as the “international gold standard” in conferencing and said a “significant fraction of reviewers simply didn’t participate in the asynchronous online discussions.”

Reverse course

Alain Beaudet, then president of the CIHR, subsequently reversed course, re-instituting the physical meetings that brought medical scientists by the dozens each year to Ottawa to mull over grant applications. (Beaudet announced his retirement from the public service in December 2016.)

The costs involved in bringing those researchers to Ottawa — things like airfare, hotels and taxis — topped $4 million in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, while meals and refreshments cost more than $600,000 for the same period.

And a document tabled in the House of Commons on Oct. 9 suggests hospitality costs at the CIHR continued to rise in 2018-2019, hitting about $300,000 for the four months from June to September. (The amount was first reported by an online news site, Blacklock’s Reporter).

… there is a danger that we will just phone it in.– medical scientist Jim Woodgett on the downside of “virtual” meetings

The hospitality bills, mostly from Marriott hotels in Ottawa, range up to $7,000 for “breakfast, lunch and refreshments” for groups of up to 32 people, most of them visiting health scientists.

A spokesman for the CIHR confirmed the return to face-to-face meetings has driven up costs dramatically.

“The figures for 2017-2018 are higher both because of the return to in-person peer review and also because we have more researchers applying for funding than ever before (hence the need for more peer reviewers),” David Coulombe said in an email.

“More applications mean we have more committees of peer reviewers with more members serving on them, in order to handle the increased workload.”

The agency had roughly 12,128 applications for funding in 2017-2018 — the highest number in four years — and distributed about $1 billion in grants.

Alain Beaudet, former CIHR president, reversed course in 2016 and abandoned a plan for ‘virtual’ meetings of scientists. (CBC)

Coulombe said the agency respects the per-person maximums for hospitality established by the federal Treasury Board, the department setting standards for expenses across government.

“CIHR strictly follows the Treasury Board policy regarding maximum hospitality costs per person, and we never cover costs associated with the purchase of alcohol by peer reviewers,” he said.

A scientist who helped lead the 2016 protest against virtual meetings said face-to-face meetings are worth the cost.

“The virtual review system was as much a disaster in hindsight as it felt at the time,” Jim Woodgett, a respected Toronto medical researcher, told CBC News.

Scientists ‘fallible’

“The problem is that scientists are entirely fallible and very much human. We, like everyone else, need incentives and peer pressure to work hard. Otherwise there is a danger that we will just phone it in.

“I can’t think of a better use of those travel/hotel dollars. They are minimal compared to the $180 million or so that is awarded per competition and ensure that the best applications are identified.”

The Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper began to tighten travel and hospitality expenses in the 2009 federal budget, which imposed a two-year freeze. And in 2011, the rules were further tightened.

But questions have continued to swirl around expenses incurred by cabinet ministers, senators, governors general and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, even as more mandated information about travel and hospitality costs is posted online.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter

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Post-vaccine surge? Michigan’s spring coronavirus case spike close to previous year’s autumn high

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(Natural News) The spike in new Wuhan coronavirus infections recorded in Michigan over the spring is similar to a spike seen during the 2020 fall season. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis, the state’s daily coronavirus case count averaged more than 7,000 for almost two weeks – before taking a slight dip to 6,891 on April 20. This echoed similar figures back in November and December 2020, which saw sharp rises in infections for those two months before plunging.

Back in autumn of last year, Michigan averaged more than 7,000 cases per day for a span of 10 days. New infections dropped slightly, then briefly spiked as the December holidays approached. It then fell to the low 1,000s for the succeeding two months – until ascending again in March.

According to University of Michigan internal medicine professor Dr. Vikas Parekh, the sudden increase in new infections could be attributed to several factors. Among the factors he cited was re-openings, which increased people’s interactions and mobility. Parekh said the loosened restrictions contributed to the spread of the highly contagious U.K. B117 variant.

“As the B117 variant spreads nationally, we will likely see other stats [with] their own surges – although I hope none are as bad as Michigan,” the professor remarked. He continued: “The milestone just tells us we are not yet in the clear, especially as we still have large portions of our population who are not vaccinated yet.”

Parekh also expressed optimism over the lower daily caseloads the Great Lakes State reported. He said he believes both cases and hospitalizations have plateaued and will likely decline soon. The professor commented: “[COVID-19] positivity has been declining now for one week, which is usually a leading indicator of case decline.”

Meanwhile, the state cited younger populations and youth sports, such as basketball, wrestling and hockey, to increase new COVID-19 infections. Because of this, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called to suspend youth sports and indoor dining in the state. She also exhorted high schools to conduct remote class sessions for two weeks to curb the spread of the pathogen.

Michigan still experienced the spike in cases despite having one of the highest vaccination rates in the country

During the opening stages of the U.S.’s immunization drive against COVID-19, Michigan boasted of having one of the highest vaccination rates nationwide. A report by Bridge Michigan even noted the initial “frenzy for vaccines” that “far exceeded the state’s limited supply.” But things have appeared to turn around for Michigan, as it now struggles to reach the 70 percent vaccination rate needed for herd immunity.

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Scottish mom’s legs turn into a pair of “giant blisters” after first dose of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine

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(Natural News) Sarah Beuckmann of Glasgow, Scotland, felt a tingling sensation in her legs and noticed a rash flaring up around her ankles a week after getting her first dose of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine on March 18.

She also had flu-like symptoms right after the vaccination.

Beuckmann called her doctor to arrange an appointment the morning she noticed the rash, but by the afternoon her skin was already breaking out into blood-filled blisters. Blisters also appeared on her legs, hands, face, arms and bottom.

“I ended up asking my husband to take me to A&E,” said Beuckmann, referring to “accident and emergency,” the equivalent of an emergency room (ER). “When I got there, my heart rate was sitting at 160bpm, which they were very concerned about. I got put on an ECG machine.”

Doctors determine AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine triggers the rash

Medics carried out tests for HIV, herpes and other skin conditions to work out what triggered the rash, but all results came back negative. Doctors finally determined that the vaccine caused her rare reaction after carrying out two biopsies.

“Once they found that it was a reaction to the vaccine, they put me on steroids and that really seems to be helping my progress,” said Beuckmann. She had been advised by her doctor not to get the second dose of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine because of her reaction.

Beuckmann spent 16 days at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital. She was discharged to recover at home. The 34-year-old mother of one is currently wheelchair-bound due to the bandages on her legs and blisters on the soles of her feet. She may need physiotherapy to help strengthen her leg muscles.

“They are starting to heal and they’re looking a lot better than they were but as the blisters started to get worse, they all sort of merged together,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

With the blisters merging, her legs have looked like a pair of “giant blisters.” Beuckmann admitted that at one point she feared her legs might have to be amputated.

Dermatologist agrees COVID-19 vaccine causes the blisters

Dr. Emma Wedgeworth, a consultant dermatologist and spokeswoman at the British Skin Foundation, agreed that Beuckmann had likely suffered a reaction to the vaccine.

“Vaccines are designed to activate the immune system. Occasionally people will have quite dramatic activation of their immune systems which, as happened in this case, can manifest in their skin” Wedgeworth told MailOnline. “This poor lady had a very severe reaction, which thankfully is extremely rare.”

It is not clear why Beuckmann, who works in retail, was invited for a vaccine. Scotland’s vaccine rollout was focused on people over the age of 50 when she got vaccinated, although vaccines are available to those who are considered at risk from the virus, or live with someone considered vulnerable.

At least 20 million Briton have had AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, which drug regulators say causes a rash in one percent of cases. They say rashes caused by the jab tend to go away within a week.

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Trojan labs? Chinese biotech company offers to build COVID testing labs in six states

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In 2012, BGI acquired Complete Genomics, a DNA sequencing company and equipment maker. The funds for the $117.6 million purchase were raised from Chinese venture capitals. The company has expanded its footprint globally. According to its website, BGI conducts business in more than 100 countries and areas and has 11 offices and labs in the U.S.

People are concerned about China’s access to American DNA data

Some said that with Complete Genomics providing an American base, BGI would have access to more DNA samples from Americans, helping it compile a huge database of genetic information. Some also worried about the protection of the genetic information’s privacy.

According to a 2019 report from the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), BGI “has formed numerous partnerships with U.S. healthcare providers and research organizations to provide large-scale genetic sequencing to support medical research efforts,”

There are three main reasons why many people in the biotech community and government have expressed concerns about China’s access to American DNA data.

In the “60 Minutes” interview, Evanina discussed the very likely scenario in which Chinese companies would be able to micro-target American individuals and offer customized preventative solutions based on their DNA.

Evanina asked: “Do we want to have another nation systematically eliminate our healthcare services? Are we okay with that as a nation?”

The second concern is that China may use DNA to track and attack American individuals. As the USCC report states: “China could target vulnerabilities in specific individuals brought to light by genomic data or health records. Individuals targeted in such attacks would likely be strategically identified persons, such as diplomats, politicians, high-ranking federal officials or military leadership.”

The third concern is that China may devise bioweapons to target non-Asians. Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, discussed it in his article “What Will China Do With Your DNA?” published by The Epoch Times in March 2019.

He wrote: “We know that the Asian genome is genetically distinct from the Caucasian and African in many ways. … Would it be possible to bioengineer a very virulent version of, say, smallpox, that was easily transmitted, fatal to other races, but to which the Chinese enjoyed a natural immunity? … Given our present ability to manipulate genomes, if such a bio-weapon can be imagined, it can probably – given enough time and resources – be realized.”

An article from Technocracy said: “China’s aggressive collection of American DNA should be doubly alarming because it can only spell one ultimate outcome: biowarfare. That is, genetically engineering viruses or other diseases that will be selectively harmful to U.S. populations.”

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