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Ohio researchers identify two variants likely originating in the U.S.



Healthcare workers administer free Covid-19 tests to people in their cars in the parking lot of the Columbus West Family Health and Wellness Center in Columbus, Ohio on November 19, 2020.

Stephen Zenner | AFP | Getty Images

Researchers in Ohio said Wednesday that they’ve discovered two new variants of the coronavirus that likely originated in the U.S. — one of which quickly became the dominant strain in Columbus, Ohio, over a three-week period in late December and January.

Like the strain first detected in the U.K., the U.S. mutations appear to make Covid-19 more contagious but do not seem like they will diminish the effectiveness of the vaccines, researchers said.

The Ohio State University researchers have not yet published their full findings, but said a non-peer-reviewed study is forthcoming. Jason McDonald, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a statement to CNBC that the agency is looking at the new research.

One of the new strains, found in just one patient in Ohio, contains a mutation identical to the now-dominant variant in the U.K., researchers said, noting that it “likely arose in a virus strain already present in the United States.” However, the “Columbus strain,” which the researchers said in a press release has become dominant in the city, includes “three other gene mutations not previously seen together in SARS-CoV2.”

“This new Columbus strain has the same genetic backbone as earlier cases we’ve studied, but these three mutations represent a significant evolution,” Dr. Dan Jones, vice chair of the division of molecular pathology at Ohio State and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “We know this shift didn’t come from the U.K. or South African branches of the virus.”

The mutation found in the dominant new strain in Columbus — COH.20G/501Y — “may be occurring independently in multiple parts of the world during the past few months,” the researchers said.

Peter Mohler, chief scientific officer at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center and co-author of the forthcoming study, said there’s no data to indicate that the new strain will impact the effectiveness of vaccines.

“It’s important that we don’t overreact to this new variant until we obtain additional data,” he said in a statement. “We need to understand the impact of mutations on transmission of the virus, the prevalence of the strain in the population and whether it has a more significant impact on human health.

The Ohio researchers will hold a press briefing on their discovery at 11 a.m. ET.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force warned states earlier this month that there may be a “USA variant” circulating. The hypothesis, which The New York Times reported was pushed by task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, was based on how severe the U.S. outbreak has become in recent months. The CDC said in a statement last week that it has not yet detected a new variant in the U.S. unrelated to already-discovered strains.

This story is developing. Check back here for updates.

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Electricity could be the key to decarbonizing society. But the challenge is huge




Top executives address the challenges and opportunities brought about by the electrification of cars and homes.

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Systemic change and climate action are key to achieving green goals




From geopolitical tensions to the coronavirus pandemic and disputes over trade, modern life can often feel bewildering, insecure and disjointed.

One area where there does seem to be some renewed sense of unity is the environment. Just last week, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order to re-join the Paris Agreement on climate change, reversing the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the accord. 

A landmark deal reached at the COP21 summit in December 2015, the Paris Agreement aims to keep global warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (35.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, and “pursue efforts” to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

In a statement reacting to Biden’s decision, the European Commission stressed the need for collaboration and consensus going forward. “The climate crisis is the defining challenge of our time,” the EU’s executive arm said, “and it can only be tackled by combining all our forces.”

The role of finance

Politicians are not the only ones focusing on the environment. In a panel discussion moderated by CNBC’s Steve Sedgwick, the financial sector’s role in efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change was touched upon in some detail. 

“In the finance industry, compared to where we were in 2015, there is just this undeniable and accelerating momentum,” Rhian-Mari Thomas, chief executive of the Green Finance Institute, said.

“We’re seeing huge inflows into … environmental, social and governance aligned funds,” she went on to state, going on to explain that the scope of change taking place was widespread.

“As well as the interesting innovation that we’re seeing and the pledges and commitments of individual finance firms and providers, what we’re really seeing is change at the systemic level,” she said.

According to the trade body for U.K. investment managers, the Investment Association (IA), the period between January and October 2020 saw £7.8 billion ($10.72 billion) placed into what it described as “responsible investment funds.”

This, the IA said, accounted for 47.5% of all net money placed into funds and was four times higher compared to the same period in 2019.

In October 2020 alone, more than £1 billion was placed into these funds, a figure the IA described as the “highest monthly total on record.” Still, work needs to be done: the IA said responsible investment funds’ “overall share of industry funds under management” amounted to just 3.0% at the end of October.

Reinforcing her point of systemic change, Thomas referred to the Network of Central Banks and Supervisors for Greening the Financial System, or NGFS. Launched in 2017, the NGFS is made up of central banks and supervisors.

Breaking things down, it consists of 83 members and 13 observers. The latter includes institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and OECD, while members range from the Bank of England and European Central Bank to the U.S. Federal Reserve.

The presence of such big hitters is not lost on Thomas. “All the world’s systemically important banks and many other financial institutions are now supervised by members of the NGFS that are committed to ensuring that the financial services system is aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement,” she said.

The challenge facing business

While the big picture may be changing thanks to global initiatives and collaborations, the issue of how individual companies tackle issues surrounding sustainability and the environment is also important.

Another member of CNBC’s panel, Covestro CEO Markus Steilemann, sought to highlight the challenge facing his firm, a major player in polymers.

“We have two transitions to master,” he said. “Number one is our massive energy intake needs to become climate neutral, carbon dioxide emission neutral,” he added.

“And secondly, we have to master the raw material transition, so, going completely away from raw materials that come from coal, oil and gas towards renewable sources.”

Steilemann also highlighted the importance of pursuing a circular economy rather than a linear one, an idea that’s started to gain more and more traction in recent years. 

“The materials we put out there do not need to end up — and must not end up — in landfill, and must not end up in the oceans … they must be recycled,” Steilemann said.

“Secondly, we need to make sure that also our feedstock we are using is not coming from a linear business model and is not extracted from the ground.”

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New York’s Cuomo lifts Covid restrictions but worries about new strains




New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wears a protective face mask as he arrives to speak during a daily briefing following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Manhattan in New York City, New York, U.S., July 13, 2020.

Mike Segar | Reuters

New York has seen the worst of its post-holiday coronavirus outbreak and will begin lifting restrictions on much of the state, but more contagious strains of the virus that have recently emerged could impede that progress, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday.

Triggered by dinners with family and friends, the holiday surge appears to have peaked in New York on Jan. 4 when the positivity rate, or the percentage of Covid tests returning positive, reached about 8% across the state. That figure has since dipped to roughly 5.6%, Cuomo said.

“I think at this point it’s safe to say the holiday surge was anticipated, the holiday surge did happen, but the holiday surge is over,” Cuomo said during a press briefing in Albany.

The Democratic governor said the state will lift restrictions on gatherings and some nonessential businesses across most of the state — except in parts of the greater New York City area, including Washington Heights, the Bronx and Queens, and the Newburgh area upstate.

Those areas are still considered “yellow zones” under New York’s micro-cluster strategy, an effort to target economic restrictions to specific areas where the virus is spreading more. New York will lift restrictions on all remaining orange and yellow zones, which will eliminate harsher limits on indoor dining, gathering sizes and businesses such as gyms, barbershops and hair salons.

Existing Zones in New York State

Source: The State of New York

Under the state’s reopening strategy, New York City restaurants are allowed to offer only outdoor dining or takeout and delivery. Cuomo said he plans to meet with Mayor Bill de Blasio and health officials to discuss how to reopen indoor dining in the city, and he will provide more details later this week.

However, there is still a looming concern that new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus first identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil could take hold and threaten the state’s ability to treat an influx of Covid-19 patients.

“The new strains are a real concern, and the Covid threat is not over,” Cuomo said.

A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the variant found in the U.K., known as B.1.1.7, could become the dominant strain of the virus by March. So far, New York has identified 22 Covid-19 cases with the mutated strain, according to recent data compiled by the CDC.

However, the federal agency warns that figure is based on sampling and doesn’t represent the total number of B.1.1.7 cases that may be circulating.

Cuomo said that expanding the number of available hospital beds isn’t the state’s main concern, but rather the lack of health-care workers to treat a wave of new patients if they were to get infected with the virus themselves.

“Yes, it creates anxiety, and all I can tell you is that we watch it and we adapt,” Cuomo said. “If it changes, we will change.”

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