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Keeping the faith: Thousands pray in Portugal's main Catholic site for end to pandemic

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Standing in circles marked to keep social distance, thousands of faithful gathered and held candles at one of Catholicism’s most famous sanctuaries in Portugal on Monday evening (12 October), with many praying for the end of the coronavirus pandemic, write Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira in Fatima.

Every October, around 100,000 people head to the Fatima Sanctuary - many of them on foot - to mark the third and last reported vision of the Virgin Mary more than 100 years ago. But, this year, only 6,000 people were allowed in the massive outdoor venue because of coronavirus restrictions.

Many of the faithful, all wearing masks, took the opportunity to pray for those affected by the outbreak.

“We need living in community - the pandemic ruined this,” said Francisco Simoes, who walked more than 120 kilometres (74.56 miles) to the Catholic event. “We ask our Virgin Mary to free us from this damn pandemic and to help those who are sick, who have suffered and lost loved ones.”

The Catholic Church teaches the Virgin Mary appeared to three Portuguese children in 1917 in Fatima, which was then an impoverished farming village. It believes the Virgin Mary gave the children three messages, the so-called secrets of Fatima.

Pope Francis made two of the shepherd children saints in 2017.

Among the crowd, 60-year-old Antonio Manuel stood next to a small statue of the Virgin Mary he carried all the way from Valongo, a town in the Portugal’s northern region, around 200 kilometres north of Fatima .

“This year I pray for doctors, nurses, security forces, for journalists, who are also fighting,” Manuel said. “And I ask for all who work against the coronavirus.”

Though Portugal only has 87,913 confirmed coronavirus cases and 2,094 deaths, the pandemic is set to leave long lasting scars on the country’s tourism-dependent economy, including in places like Fatima, where businesses are highly dependent on foreign visitors to survive.

“It is a very difficult period for everyone,” said Jose Fernando as he waited for the mass to begin.

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Merkel plans circuit-break lockdown as German virus cases surge

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Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed regional leaders on Wednesday (28 October) to agree to a partial lockdown in Germany which would see restaurants and bars closed but keep schools open, a draft document seen by Reuters said, write and

The drastic measures, to take effect from 4 November, are aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus in Europe’s biggest economy as the number of new cases hit a record high.

Under the planned new restrictions people would only be able to go out with members of their own and one other household. Fitness studios, discos and cinemas would close, as would theatres, opera houses and concert venues.

Restaurants would only be allowed to offer takeaways, the document said. Shops could remain open if they implement hygiene measures and limit customer numbers.

Merkel will hold a virtual conference with the country’s 16 state premiers later to try to agree the nationwide rules and ditch a confusing patchwork of regional measures.

Almost all regions of Germany face an exponential increase in infection rates, said the document to be discussed, and local health authorities can no longer trace all infections.

“The aim is to interrupt the dynamic of the infection fast so no far-reaching limits on personal contact and economic activity are needed over the Christmas period,” it said.

Germany was widely praised for keeping infection and death rates below those of many of its neighbours in the first phase of the crisis but is now in the midst of a second wave. Cases rose by 14,964 to 464,239 in the last 24 hours, the Robert Koch institute for infectious diseases said on Wednesday.

Deaths jumped by 85 to 10,183, fuelling fears about the health system after Merkel warned on Tuesday it could hit breaking point if infections continue to spiral.

“If we wait until intensive care is full, it is too late,” Health Minister Jens Spahn, who last week tested positive for the virus, told broadcaster SWR.

The government has long insisted it wants to avoid a second blanket lockdown after an initial one this year hit economic growth, with the economy shrinking by a record 9.7% in the second quarter.

While economists expect a rebound for the July-Sept period, they warn that a further lockdown could wipe out growth in the last quarter. Third quarter data is due on 30 October.

Under the plans, the government aims to provide aid to firms hit by closures, including the cultural event sectors.

Only necessary overnight stays would be allowed, according to the document. Brothels, swimming pools, beauty and tattoo studios would close but physiotherapists and hairdressers could stay open. The steps would run until the end of November but are subject to review.

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Italy approves trial of osteoporosis drug to treat COVID-19

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Italy’s main medicines regulator gave the go-ahead on Tuesday (27 October) for human clinical trials on raloxifene, a generic osteoporosis drug that researchers hope may also help reduce COVID-19 symptoms and make patients less infectious, writes .

The drug was identified as a potential COVID-19 treatment by researchers using supercomputers to screen more than 400,000 molecules for chemical characteristics that might inhibit the virus, focusing on those already approved for use in humans.

Andrea Beccari, from Excalate4Cov, a public-private consortium led by Italy’s Dompé Farmaceutici, said researchers hoped that raloxifene - a generic drug known as a selective oestrogen receptor modulator - would block replication of the virus in cells and thus slow down progress of the disease.

“It inhibits virus replication, thus preventing the worsening of patients with mild symptoms, and also decreases infectivity, limiting the viral load,” said Marco Allegretti, head of research at Dompé Farmaceutici.

There was some evidence early in the coronavirus pandemic that oestrogen present in pre-menopausal women might have a protective effect against the virus. Some scientists think raloxifene, which is prescribed to strengthen the bones of older women with lower levels of oestrogen, the female hormone, may provide the same kind of protection.

The trial will involve 450 hospital and home patients at Rome’s Spallanzani Hospital and Humanitas in Milan in the initial phase.

They will be given a seven-day treatment of raloxifene capsules in a randomised sample and 174 more people may be added in the final stage. Enrolment will last 12 weeks.

The Excalate4Cov platform is backed by the European Commission and coordinates supercomputing centres in Italy, Germany and Spain with pharmaceutical companies and research centres, including the University of Louvain, Fraunhofer Institut, Politecnico di Milano and Spallanzani Hospital.

It uses a chemical library of 500 billion molecules and can process 3 million molecules per second using four supercomputers of more than 122 Petaflops, a unit of computing speed equal to one thousand trillion floating-point operations a second.

Researchers harnessed the power of the supercomputers to create a three-dimensional structure of 12 coronavirus proteins and conduct simulations to see where the proteins may be attacked by a drug.

“It took a million hours of calculation,” Beccari said, adding that, as research continued, it may be possible to develop second-generation drugs superior to raloxifene.

($1 = €0.8443)

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France sees highest number of COVID-19 patients going into hospital since April

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French hospitals registered 1,307 new coronavirus patients on Monday in the highest one-day increase since 2 April, which saw 1,607 new patients, as the health system comes under increasing stress from a runaway infection rate, writes Geert De Clercq.

French health ministry data showed that France now has a total of 17,784 coronavirus patients in its hospitals, compared with a record 32,292 on 14 April, at the height of the March-May lockdown.

The ministry also reported 26,771 new confirmed coronavirus cases in past 24 hours, from 52,010 on Sunday (25 October). On Monday, the tally usually drops sharply because of reporting lags over the weekend.

The death toll went up by 257, taking the cumulative total since the start of the epidemic to 35,018. The number of people in intensive care units rose by 186 to 2,770.

Several regions in France have implemented emergency plans in hospitals, delaying non-essential operations to make space in ICU units for COVID-19 patients and cancelling staff holidays.

Sources told Reuters that authorities were looking at options for still tighter measures to fight COVID-19, including starting a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m curfew earlier, confining people to their homes at weekends except for essential trips, and closing non-essential shops.

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