Tourists, residents evacuated by boat in Greece as wildfires rage

By Angeliki Koutantou and Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) -Scores of people on the Greek island of Evia fled to the shore to be evacuated by boat on Wednesday as a rapidly spreading wildfire tore through surrounding pine forests, leaving gutted buildings in its wake.

The fire, worsened by changing winds, has forced authorities on the island near Athens to evacuate several villages since late Tuesday.

Coast guard vessels picked up at least 50 people who had been evacuated from a beach close to the seaside village of Rovies on Wednesday and transferred them to a ferry, an official said.

“It was burning all night. The forest has been destroyed, villages were burned. We left behind our homes, we left our pets,” Christina Katsini, a Rovies resident, told Skai TV.

Tassos Baltas, a volunteer rescuer, said it was “raining ashes in Halkida”, Evia’s capital, some 100 km (62 miles) away.

Fires that had threatened houses on the northern outskirts of Athens on Tuesday eased slightly. But with Greece facing its most severe heatwave in 30 years, the risk remained high for the next few days in most parts of the country, authorities said.

Temperatures hovered above 40 degrees Celsius (107 Fahrenheit) for the third day.

“The weather conditions are extreme,” Deputy Citizens’ Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias said in a televised address. “We should remain on alert. We should avoid any – but any – activity that could cause a fire.”

Reinforcements arrived from Cyprus, and firefighters from France and two aircraft from Sweden were expected by Thursday, a Civil Protection Authority spokesperson said.

Fires were also burning in Halkidiki in northern Greece, the Peloponnese, in the regions of Messinia and Mani, and in Ilia, close to Ancient Olympia, which was the site of the first Olympic Games and was ordered to be evacuated.

Europe has been experiencing extreme weather this summer, from heavy flooding in the north to severe heatwaves and fires in parts of the Mediterranean, with Turkey hit by its most intense blazes on record.

Athens residents were told to stay indoors as a thick cloud of smoke hung over the city.

Fires near the town of Varympompi, north of the capital, damaged scores of buildings and destroyed more than 80 cars after breaking out on Tuesday.

“I saved my pets, that’s why I stayed,” said one Varympompi resident, Panagiotis, standing among burned cars and blackened pine trees. “I have goosebumps just talking about it; all the homes around me burned, nothing’s left.”

(Additional reporting by Giorgos Moutafis and Lefteris Papadimas, Writing by Karolina Tagaris)

Lack of side effects doesn’t mean mRNA vaccine not working; mRNA shots limit breakthrough infection severity

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) – The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Lack of vaccine side effects no cause for concern

While a variety of side effects after receiving an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine may be a sign of the immune system kicking into high gear, a lack of such reactions does not mean it has failed to respond, researchers have found. They tested 206 hospital employees for antibodies against the coronavirus before and after receipt of the vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech and surveyed them about vaccine-related reactions. As in clinical trials, arm pain was the most common symptom, reported by 91% after the first shot and 82% after the second. Systemic symptoms, such as feeling weak or tired, or having body aches or pains, were reported by 42% and 28%, respectively, after the first shot and by 62% and 52% after the second shot. But there was no correlation between vaccine symptom severity and antibody levels one month after vaccination, the researchers reported on Friday in a paper posted on medRxiv ahead of peer review. The researchers said the findings should reassure people that a lack of side effects after getting the mRNA shots does not mean the vaccine is not working as intended. The Moderna shot also uses mRNA technology.

mRNA vaccines limit severity of rare breakthrough infections

In the rare cases of COVID-19 that occur after vaccination, patients are likely to be sick for less time and have milder symptoms than if they were unvaccinated, according to a U.S. study of nearly 4,000 healthcare personnel, first responders, and other frontline workers. In participants who were tested weekly since mid-December, COVID-19 has been diagnosed in five who were fully vaccinated with an mRNA vaccine from either Pfizer and BioNTech or Moderna, 11 who were partially protected, having received either one shot or were less than 14 days out from their second, and 156 who were unvaccinated. Most unvaccinated patients were sick for at least two weeks, compared with only one week for vaccinated patients, the researchers reported on Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine. Patients who were fully or partially vaccinated had 58% lower odds of fever and spent an average of 2.3 fewer days in bed than unvaccinated patients. Their viral loads also averaged 40% lower. “If you get vaccinated, about 90% of the time you’re not going to get COVID-19,” coauthor Dr. Jeff Burgess of the University of Arizona said in a statement. “Even if you do get it, there will be less of the virus in you and your illness is likely to be much milder.”

J&J vaccine shows promise against Delta variant in lab test

The single-shot COVID-19 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson showed promise against the highly contagious Delta coronavirus variant in a laboratory study posted on Thursday on bioRxiv ahead of peer review. Analyses of blood from eight recipients of the vaccine showed that its neutralizing antibody activity against the Delta variant, first identified in India, was reduced by 1.6-fold compared to an earlier version of the virus but is still higher than against the Beta variant, first identified in South Africa. In trials last year while the Beta variant was circulating in South Africa, the J&J vaccine showed 66% efficacy against moderate and severe disease. “We believe that our vaccine offers durable protection against COVID-19 and elicits neutralizing activity against the Delta variant,” J&J Chief Scientific Officer Paul Stoffels said. So far, preliminary data has shown that vaccines made by Pfizer and BioNTech, AstraZeneca and Moderna are largely protective against Delta, with the concentration of virus-neutralizing antibodies being somewhat reduced. Delta has become the variant of most concern around the world as it is more easily transmitted, may lead to more severe disease even in younger people, and is becoming the dominant virus version in many countries.

High COVID-19 rate seen in patients’ pets

In 20% of households where humans had COVID-19 or had recovered from it, cats and dogs also had antibodies to the virus, researchers from The Netherlands found. They visited 196 households where humans had tested positive within the previous 200 days, to test pet cats and dogs for the coronavirus and for antibodies that would indicate past infection. Thirteen animals – six cats and seven dogs – or 4.2%, had COVID-19, and 54 – 31 cats and 23 dogs (17.4%) – had coronavirus antibodies. There was no evidence that pets were passing the infection to each other. Owners reported no or mild symptoms in the infected animals. “If you have COVID-19, you should avoid contact with your cat or dog,” Dr. Els Broens of Utrecht University, whose team presented the data on Wednesday at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases, said in a statement. “The main concern, however, is not the animals’ health … but the potential risk that pets could act as a reservoir of the virus and reintroduce it into the human population.” To date, however, no pet-to-human transmission has been reported, he added. “It seems unlikely that pets play a role in the pandemic.”

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid, Aakriti Bhalla and Manas Mishra; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Two New York cats become first U.S. pets to test positive for COVID-19

By Deena Beasley and Katie Paul

(Reuters) – Two cats in New York have become the first pets in the United States to test positive for the new coronavirus but there is no evidence pets can spread the virus to humans, according to U.S. health authorities.

The cats, from separate areas of New York state, had mild respiratory illness and are expected to make a full recovery. It is believed that they contracted the virus from people in their households or neighborhoods, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Animals, pets, can get infected. … There’s no evidence that the virus is transmitted from the pet to a human,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at the daily coronavirus briefing.

There are few known COVID-19 infections of pets globally. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, one cat in Hong Kong tested positive without displaying symptoms, while a cat in Belgium recovered nine days after falling ill.

Five tigers and three lions at the Bronx Zoo in New York have also tested positive for COVID-19, including one tiger who never developed a cough, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, the non-profit which runs the zoo.

“Our cats were infected by a staff person who was asymptomatically infected with the virus or before that person developed symptoms,” the WCS said on Wednesday. “All eight cats continue to do well. They are behaving normally, eating well, and their coughing is greatly reduced.”

None of the zoo’s leopards, cheetahs, puma or serval are showing any signs of illness, it added.

New York City is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, which like much of the world is taking extraordinary measures to prevent the spread, but authorities indicated owners did not need to fear their pets.

“There is no evidence that pets play a role in spreading the virus in the United States,” the CDC said in a statement. “Therefore, there is no justification in taking measures against companion animals that may compromise their welfare. Further studies are needed to understand if and how different animals, including pets, could be affected.”

The agency recommends that owners not let their pets interact with people or other animals outside the household. Cats should be kept indoors and dogs should be walked on a leash, maintaining at least six feet (1.8 meters) from other animals and people, it said.

RARE AND ISOLATED CASES

The CDC said coronavirus infections have been reported in very few animals worldwide, mostly in those that had close contact with a person with COVID-19. It is not recommending routine testing of animals at this juncture.

The AVMA similarly said it was not changing its basic guidance for pet owners and veterinarians, adding that any test of an animal should be performed in coordination with public health officials.

Maine-based animal health company IDEXX Laboratories Inc on Monday rolled out a COVID-19 test for pets, which it said would be available to veterinarians in North America this week and distributed internationally after that.

IDEXX said it has conducted over 5,000 tests in cats, dogs, and horses with respiratory symptoms in 17 countries and has found no positive results, suggesting pets “generally remain uninfected, except in rare and isolated cases.”

The company developed its test specifically for use in animals and its laboratories are not approved for handling human specimens, it said.

Earlier this month a study suggested that cats can become infected with the new coronavirus but dogs appear not to be vulnerable, prompting the World Health Organization to say it will take a closer look at transmission of the virus between humans and pets.

A recent study published on the website of the journal Science found that cats and ferrets can become infected with SARS-CoV-2, the scientific term for the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease in humans.

The study, based on research conducted in China in January and February, found, however, that dogs, chickens, pigs and ducks are not likely to catch the virus.

The United States has the world’s largest number of coronavirus cases at over 830,000, with 47,050 deaths as of Wednesday.

(Reporting by Mrinalika Roy in Bengaluru, Deena Beasley in Los Angeles and Katie Paul in San Francisco; Additonal reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Maju Samuel, Sandra Maler and Peter Henderson)

U.S. Veterinarians steel themselves for online pharmacy challenge

Destiny Brown, Dr. Katie Buss, and Kingsley family pose with puppies at the Kings Veterinary Hospital in Loveland, Ohio, U.S., on April 26, 2019. Picture taken on April 26, 2019. Courtesy Jennifer Blodgett/Kings Veterinary Hospital/Handout via REUTERS

By Manas Mishra and Tamara Mathias

(Reuters) – A David and Goliath battle is brewing in the business of selling prescription medicines for pets, pitching veterinarians against online giants moving into this lucrative corner of the growing market for animal supplies.

Americans spent $72.56 billion last year on their pets, according to American Pet Products Association. Prescription drugs were expected to account for over $10 billion, according to an estimate.

With deep discounts and online convenience, Walmart Inc, soon-to-be listed Chewy.com and Amazon.com Inc’s Wag brand have effectively conquered the market for pet food, care products and other supplies, but until now veterinary practices, which both prescribe and sell drugs, have been a major source of prescription medication.

While Amazon so far has shown no interest in that market, Chewy’s and Walmart’s forays into the online pet pharmacy business threaten to change that, prompting veterinary clinics to seek help in defending their turf. Enter Covetrus Inc, Vet Source, which partners with Patterson Companies Inc, and others that offer tools to help vets manage their practices and give customers the convenience they have come to expect from online shopping.

“We started to realize this is what our clients want,” said Stephanie Foster, practice manager at Kings Veterinary Hospital in Loveland, Ohio. “They want to be able to order things at 11 o’ clock at night. They’re used to the Amazon mentality.”

Foster says she began using Covetrus to order drugs and supplies for the practice after it began losing sales of pet food and other products to online retailers. Now, her hospital has a website run by Covetrus under the practice’s name that effectively acts as its online pharmacy.

With that comes software that helps the clinic manage its inventory and track prescriptions, so Foster knows when clients need a refill and for those in Covetrus collects a service fee that is a percentage of sales.

Foster said partnering with Covetrus has helped boost overall sales by half over the past three years because it gives clients online convenience, timely reminders and, despite the fees, competitive prices.

“Covetrus now has more leverage with the manufacturers than I will ever have as a small business,” she said. “They’re able to get the manufacturers to agree to instant rebates and they can do flash sales on products and things that we just can’t compete with.” 

The company, formed by the combination of medical supply firm Henry Schein’s animal health unit and Vet’s First Choice and listed in February, represents some 100,000 veterinary practices globally. In the United States, 27,000 use some form of its services with over 8,000 – about a quarter of the market – signed up for prescription management, Covetrus says.

HOME TURF ADVANTAGE

PetSmart Inc-backed Chewy.com, whose sales soared from $26 million to $3.5 billion between 2012 and 2018, said in a filing ahead of its New York Stock Exchange debut this month it planned to expand its online pharmacy business launched last year.

The company has yet to update on the pharmacy’s performance and it would not comment for this article, citing the silent period ahead of its stock exchange debut.

Walmart joined the fray last month when it launched its online pet pharmacy WalmartPetRx.com and said it aimed to operate 100 in-store animal clinics by the end of the year.

Analysts say, however, the prescription pet medicine business could prove more challenging than other pet products.

Those who want to buy medication online still need a prescription from a vet and must either email or upload a copy or have the online retailer contact the practice first.

That, analysts say, offers the practices a chance to sell the first batch on site and then direct customers to their own online service.

Kristen Cook, a practice manager at the Belton Veterinary Clinic in Belton, Texas, says their doctors have no obligation to write a prescription for those shopping elsewhere and the clinic’s policy is to handle prescriptions internally.

“It’s not something like I am handing them a piece of paper to take it wherever they want to take it,” Cook said.

The stakes are high.

Cook said that at least half of the clinic’s revenue comes from prescription drug sales.

Nationally, pharmacy sales on average make up about a third of a practice’s revenue, according to Gary Glassman, partner at accounting and financial services firm Burzenski & Company, which serves veterinary practices across the country.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) says, however, that 40 states have already adopted laws, regulations or guidelines that specifically or implicitly require veterinarians to provide a written prescription upon request in some circumstances.

To see the summary report from AVMA, please click here

This means pet owners could fill those prescriptions with Chewy or other online providers, and the market is just too attractive to e-commerce players for the vets and their partners to get complacent, analysts say.

According to a 2018 TD Ameritrade online survey of U.S. millennial pet owners, they were willing to spend up to $2,000 on average if their pet got sick, with dog owners prepared to spend more on their pets than what they expected to spend on their own healthcare.

“People are treating their pets more like people,” William Blair analyst John Kreger said. “Historically … you’d frankly euthanize the pet when they started to have some of these chronic conditions. That’s just not happening now.”

(Reporting by Tamara Mathias and Manas Mishra in Bengaluru, Writing by Patrick Graham; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)

Invasion of big, voracious lizards threatens U.S. South: study

A black and white Tegu lizard is shown in the Florida Everglades in this photo obtained August 2, 2018. Courtesy Emma Hanslowe/USGS/Handout via REUTERS

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – A group of South American lizards that can grow up to four feet long (1.2 meters) has established a home in the Florida wild after being brought to the United States as pets, and the reptiles could begin a voracious march across the U.S. South, according to a new study.

Tegu lizards, which currently live in two large colonies in Florida, could expand into an area from the Carolinas to Central Texas, according to the scientific report published in July on the website for the journal Nature.

“They are voracious, omnivorous predatory lizards that can live in a variety of habitats, but we can’t know what is going to happen or how intense this invasion is going to become until the effects are upon us,” said Lee Fitzgerald, a professor at Texas A&M University and curator of its Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections.

Fitzgerald, a co-author of the study, said in an interview this week it could take years for the tegu lizards to reach their potential range, but new hot spots pop up as more pet lizards escape or are dumped in the wild by owners.

There are no current estimates of wild populations of tegus in the United States. In South America, the large-bodied lizards range widely east of the Andes and include species such as the Argentine black and white tegu.

Armed with strong jaws and tails that they can wield as thumping weapons, the lizards in Florida devour the eggs of American alligators and ground-nesting birds, wildlife officials said. The reptiles also have a taste for insects, fruit, and birds.

“As far as being a damaging invasive species, it really depends on what the threatened resources are in the areas where you might get tegus,” said Robert Reed, chief of the Invasive Species Science Branch at the U.S. Geological Survey, and another report co-author.

Tegu owners describe their pets as big, calm and occasionally affectionate lizards that like sunning themselves and are not picky about what they eat. But they can also be ornery and tough to handle.

In Florida, local wild populations of breeding tegu lizards are found in at least two counties, Miami-Dade and Hillsborough, home to Tampa, while there have been sightings in other parts of the state, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

On private lands, Florida hunters without a license are allowed to kill tegu lizards if it is done humanely. On public lands, the state is trying to get rid of the lizards through traps.

“The most important thing that the public can do to stop the spread of nonnative species like tegus is to NEVER release nonnative animals into the wild,” commission specialist Jamie Rager said in an email. “Don’t let it loose.”

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Sandra Maler)

California ‘fire tornado’ forced residents to flee in chaos

A burned out home in the small community of Keswick is shown from wildfire damage near Redding, California, U.S., July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandria Sage

By Rollo Ross

REDDING, Calif. (Reuters) – The “fire tornado” that ripped through Northern California last week forced residents to flee their homes chaotically, many with their pets and little else, people sheltering in Red Cross evacuation centers said.

The blaze, the seventh most destructive in California history, roared suddenly into Redding and adjacent communities after being whipped by gale-force winds into a fire storm that jumped the Sacramento River.

The erratic blaze forced 38,000 people from their homes. Most of them are staying at hotels or with friends and relatives. But nearly 300 are at Red Cross shelters in the Redding area, including retired firefighter Steven Bailey.

Bailey and others at the shelter said the fire’s towering inferno bewildered them.

“It’s tough being on the other side. Being on the engine and going in, that was tough but it was a different type of tough when you get told to leave and you don’t know anything, yeah, so it’s different. I don’t wish anyone to have to experience (it).”

Rob McDonald said he left his home in Shasta County hoping the fire would not make it up the hill where he lives, taking only a few personal items with him.

“Wish I would have grabbed a few other things. I was thinking it wasn’t going to get up there, it was a just ‘in-case’ thing. And it did. And so I’m in limbo, total limbo as to what’s going on up there,” McDonald said.

As the fire approached, people grabbed what they could. For many, that included their furry friends.

Volunteers set up a special hall at the Shasta College evacuation center to cater for people with pets, not only dogs and cats but also rats, pot-bellied pigs and a giant tortoise.

Frank Williams, who managed to bring his dogs but had to leave his pet birds behind, was emotional when recalling how noisy the animals were when they arrived last Friday.

“I can tell you about how quiet it was last night, after the animals being stressed from when we got in here on Friday. You could have heard a pin drop, finally, last night because all the animals were dead tired from barking,” Williams said.

Wildfire evacuations have become a fact of life in California, which is bearing the brunt of an extreme run of wildfires across the U.S. West.

At least 10,000 people have been dislodged in Mendocino County in California’s wine country from two wildfires. Hundreds were evacuated from the Cranston Fire in Riverside County east of Los Angeles last week.

Erratic winds and record high temperatures have fueled blazes that blackened nearly 410,000 acres in California, the state’s highest year-to-date level in a decade.

(Reporting by Rollo Ross; Writing by Bill Tarrant; editing by Grant McCool)

Struggling to feed families, Venezuelans abandon pets

Sonrisa is pictured at the Famproa dogs shelter in Los Teques, Venezuela

By Carlos Garcia Rawlins and Girish Gupta

LOS TEQUES, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuelans struggling to feed their families, let alone their pets, during the country’s deep economic crisis are increasingly abandoning emaciated dogs in streets, public parks and makeshift shelters because they no longer can afford to care for them.

At one dilapidated sanctuary in the hills outside the capital Caracas, hundreds of scrawny dogs bark and claw through wire mesh to scavenge for food in the streets and forest land nearby.

“The crisis has hit hard,” said Maria Arteaga, 53, who began looking after stray dogs in her own home before founding the shelter in Los Teques, the capital of Miranda state.

“People are abandoning their dogs because they can’t afford food and because they’re leaving the country.”

Every few hours, vehicles pull up and people hand over dogs, including pedigrees. Volunteers arrive daily to donate and help distribute food to the animals.

Though Arteaga does not have a formal register, she has seen an increase in the number of dogs arriving in recent months, with nine poodles dropped off just in the past two weeks.

Suffering through a third year of recession, Venezuelans are experiencing shortages of food and medicine, and are finding salaries wrecked by triple-digit inflation.

A 20-kilogram (44-pound) bag of dog food, for example, costs around $50 at the black-market exchange rate, nearly double its price in the United States and out of reach for many in Venezuela, where the minimum wage is $23 per month.

So sanctuaries like Arteaga’s are proliferating, while ever more stray dogs turn up on the streets. Pet shops are struggling to stock shelves with food and medicine.

The plight of the pets comes despite pushes in the past by the socialist government to protect animal rights. In 2013, for example, President Nicolas Maduro set up Mission Nevado, named for independence hero Simon Bolivar’s dog, to rescue and protect strays.

But now even police are rationing food in order to feed their sniffer dogs.

On one recent day, systems engineer Maria Rodriguez, 33, said she came across a stray dog in Los Teques and her 12-year-old son begged her to keep it to accompany the family’s border collie.

“Sadly our income isn’t enough for us to eat, so how can I give food to two or three dogs?” Rodriguez said, after dropping off the animal at Arteaga’s sanctuary.

(Additional reporting by Daniel Kai; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Will Dunham)

Thank You BoJangles

Matthew 5:4 ESV “Blessed are those, who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

As I’ve said before, I believe dogs are specially created by our Heavenly Father to remind us how much God loves us, even in our darkest times. They truly are God’s Little Helpers. However, like every living creature on this Earth, God recently called one of His helpers home. Continue reading

God’s Little Helpers

In my years of knowing the Lord, it has always amazed me how much God loves us. It’s something that, as humans, we can have a hard time understanding. No matter a person’s lifestyle, beliefs, or faults, we are all loved by God equally. So much so, that He gave the whole world His only Son in order to give us all a chance at eternal life! (John 3:16)

But for those who don’t understand God’s ability to love, I always find that one of the best examples of His love for us in dogs. To me, they are truly God’s Little Helpers. I believe when He created these wonderful creatures, He did so with the purpose of reflecting His eternal love for us within each and every one. Continue reading