Morning mail: Covid positive test rate hits new high, Canada’s mystery…

Good morning and happy new year! It’s nice to be back in your inbox and we hope you stayed safe and had a lovely festive season. The year is off to a tumultuous start with many states reporting record Covid infections and growing hospitalisations, compounded by concerns about the availability of tests. But there is some hope, with new studies suggesting the Omicron variant currently spreading around the world is less harsh than its predecessors.

Australia recorded 32,000 new Covid situations on Sunday, and the positivity rate reached 20.3%, meaning one in five people tested had Covid. The figure is well above the 5% the WHO says is needed to keep the spread of Covid under control. So what does a 20% rate average for Australia? Here’s our explainer. There were 1,066 people in hospital with Covid on Sunday – an 18% increase a day after the number had already doubled between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve. The number of PCR tests in NSW dropped by almost 30,000 in 24 hours after the government promoted people not to line up unless they had symptoms or were a close contact. Victoria’s health minister is expected to make an announcement in the coming days on widening access to rapid antigen tests after extreme heat caused the closure of eight of the state’s testing sites on Saturday, blowing out queues and test consequence wait times.

In some much-needed positive Covid news – there’s more research suggesting the Omicron variant is less harsh than other variants. New studies suggest the variant is more likely to infect the throat than the lungs, which scientists believe may explain why it appears to be more infectious but less deadly than other versions of the virus. Some research has suggested that lateral flow tests detect Omicron better when the throat is swabbed instead of the nose.

US politician Liz Cheney, a Republican member of the House committee investigating the attack on the US Capitol, says her party must choose between Donald Trump and the truth. “We can either be loyal to Donald Trump or we can be loyal to the constitution, but we cannot be both,” she told CBS’s confront the Nation. On Sunday, Cheney and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the committee chairman, again discussed the possibility of a criminal referral for Trump over his failure to attempt to stop the riot or for his obstruction of the investigation.

Australia

Bad western diets and antibiotics can deplete the diversity of the microorganisms in our gut and affect our health and mood, but this bacteria can get a boost from someone else’s poo.
Bad western diets and antibiotics can deplete the varied of the microorganisms in our gut and affect our health and mood, but this bacteria can get a raise from someone else’s poo. Photograph: Rawf8/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Our gut’s microbiome has a far greater effect on health than anyone before imagined, according to emerging science, which is leading to stool transplants and designer gut bacteria. Researchers in Adelaide are harnessing the strength of “super poo” in new treatments for the increasing number of people who are turning to faecal transplants for the health benefits.

It was a horror weekend in the water across the country after three men and a seven-year-old boy died in separate drowning incidents. A number of people were also rescued from the water in other incidents, which has prompted authorities to plead with the public to take care while swimming and fishing.

The world

The official number of cases under investigation, 48, but multiple sources say the cluster could now be as many as 150.
Several new situations of a progressive neurological illness in New Brunswick include caretakers of those afflicted, suggesting a possible environmental cause. Photograph: Zoonar GmbH/Alamy

A whistleblower in Canada has warned that a progressive neurological illness that has baffled experts appears to be affecting a growing number of young people. Young adults with no prior health triggers are developing troubling symptoms, including rapid weight loss, insomnia, hallucinations and limited mobility.

The Covid crisis has left Sri Lanka on the brink of bankruptcy and facing a deepening humanitarian crisis as inflation rises to record levels, food prices rocket and its coffers run dry. Half a million people have sunk into poverty since the pandemic hit, with rising costs forcing many to cut back on food.

Russia is “very likely” to move into Ukraine and might only be deterred by “enormous sanctions”, the chair of the US House intelligence committee said on Sunday, adding an invasion could backfire on Moscow by drawing more countries into the Nato military alliance.

Oxfam India has said its work in the country will be imperilled by the government’s refusal to revive a licence that permits it to receive funds from oversea.

Recommended reads

Hugo Weaving in Loveland, Leah Purcell in The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson and Zac Efron in Gold – Australian films which are all set for release in 2022.
Hugo Weaving in Loveland, Leah Purcell in The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson and Zac Efron in Gold – Australian films which are all set for release in 2022. Photograph: Dark Matter/John Platt for Roadshow Films/Stan

The last associate of years have surely reminded us that nobody can predict the future and nobody knows what’s coming around the corner. We can safely assume, however, that at any rate troubles befall us, artists will struggle on, fighting the good fight, telling stories and taking us to places of imagination and illumination. As always, the new year offers a range of Australian films to look forward to. Hugo Weaving, Rose Byrne and Zac Efron star in some of 2022’s big movie releases, with directors George Miller, Ivan Sen, Baz Luhrmann and Gracie Otto at the helm.

For Benjamin Giles, running 2,000km in 2021 was the first resolution he’d kept longer than two weeks. But it wasn’t easy – it took an app, a long lockdown and pushing by injury to reach his self-imposed target. But most of all, it took obsession. “I was way behind the schedule. But I was also obsessed, and it was mathematically possible that by running 11km a day for six weeks, with one rest day a week, I could reach my target on Christmas Eve.”

Pruning is usually a technique applied to roses in winter, but more recently the gardening term has been cropping up whenever sociologists talk about our social lives. People have been pruning friends amid Covid – becoming “more insular and bonding-oriented”, and now many aren’t sure how to start rebuilding their social lives.

Listen

One of our best complete Story episodes from 2021 was this Guardian investigation into a scheme allowing foreign nationals to buy citizenship in Vanuatu, or “golden passports” – and with it, visa-free access to the EU and UK. Pacific editor Kate Lyons and freelance reporter Euan Ward speak to Laura Murphy-Oates about how this passport scheme works and how it could be exploited.

complete Story is Guardian Australia’s daily news podcast. Subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or any other podcasting app.

Sport

Former Australian rugby league player Blake Ferguson has been arrested in Japan after alleged drug possession. Ferguson’s future in Japan’s rugby union competition is now in harsh doubt given how seriously drug possession is viewed in the country.

Australian Open boss Craig Tiley says there is “quite a bit to play out” before the saga around Novak Djokovic’s turn up at Melbourne Park is sorted. The World No 1 has continually refused to show if he is vaccinated against Covid-19, a requirement to work in Victoria.

Media roundup

Northern Territory police have commenced a “major investigation” into the death of a child under five years old in far away Central Australia on New Year’s Day, according to the ABC. A 99-year-old former Manly ferry has sunk in Sydney Harbour after a decades-long push for the dilapidated canal to be restored, reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

Coming up

Labor is expected to announce a policy to establish a strategic fleet of supply ships.

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