WHO to send team to China in January to probe COVID origins

Three-quarter infections occurring in Americas; India to reach 10 million cases; ex-Burundi president dies due to virus.

WHO said international experts would go to the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the first cases of COVID-19 were detected last December [File: China Daily/Reuters]

Officials at WHO have said an international team led by their organisation would be going to China in the first week of January to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

WHO said three-quarters of all infections were occurring in the Americas.

The former president of Burundi, Pierre Buyoya, has died in Paris of COVID-19 at the age of 71, several close relatives told the AFP news agency.

Meanwhile, India is 20,000 cases short of reaching the 10 million mark as the country recorded more than 22,800 new infections in the past 24 hours, standing firm as the world’s second most affected state in the world after the United States.

Here are all the latest updates:

FDA authorises Moderna’s COVID vaccine for emergency use

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued an emergency use authorisation for Moderna Inc.’s COVID-19 vaccine.

The FDA announcement comes a day after a panel of outside advisers recommended the vaccine be used across the country, which has seen the highest number of COVID-19 cases and related deaths in the world.

That committee voted 20-0 with one abstention in favour of the vaccine, saying its benefits outweigh any potential risks in people aged 18 and older.

US officials previously said that the country was prepared to ship 5.9 initial doses of the Moderna vaccine nationwide once the FDA authorised its use.

US officials say they are ready to ship 5.9 million initial doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine nationwide [File: Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters]

Colombia signs deals for 20 million doses of COVID vaccines

Colombia has reached agreements with pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and AstraZeneca to provide 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, President Ivan Duque said on Friday.

The country reported a new, grim record for single-day confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Friday, with 13,277 new infections reported. Colombia has recorded over 1.48 million cases since the start of the pandemic, as well as more than 40,000 deaths.

“We have closed a deal with pharmaceutical company Pfizer for the acquisition of 10 million doses. We have also closed a deal with AstraZeneca for the acquisition of 10 million doses,” Duque said on his nightly television broadcast.

The vaccination campaign would begin in early 2021, he said.

Chile’s president fined for mask-less selfie, violating COVID rules

The president of Chile, Sebastian Pinera, received a $3,500 fine on Friday after posing for a selfie on a beach without wearing a mask as required during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chile has strict rules on mask-wearing in all public places and violations are punishable with sanctions that include fines and even jail terms.

Pinera apologised then turned himself in shortly after the selfie – which shows him standing close to a woman that he said approached him on the beach and asked for a photo together – surfaced on social media in early December.

Brazil records over 50,000 new daily COVID cases

Brazil’s health ministry said on Friday that the country registered 52,544 new cases of COVID-19 and 823 additional deaths linked to the virus in a 24-hour period.

The South American nation has the world’s third highest number of infections, with over 7.1 million cases reported since the pandemic began, according to Johns Hopkins University. Brazil has recorded over 184,800 deaths – the second highest total globally.

Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who has downplayed the severity of COVID-19, attacked COVID-19 vaccines this week, suggesting on Thursday that the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine could turn people into crocodiles.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed the severity of COVID-19 [File: Eraldo Peres/AP]

“In the Pfizer contract it’s very clear: ‘we’re not responsible for any side effects.’ If you turn into a crocodile, it’s your problem,” Bolsonaro said. “If you become superhuman, if a woman starts to grow a beard or if a man starts to speak with an effeminate voice, they will not have anything to do with it.”

Biden to receive COVID vaccine on Monday

US President-elect Joe Biden is expected to receive a COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, his press secretary said. Biden will get the shot along with his wife, Jill.

The vaccinations will take place in public as part of an effort to reassure Americans that the shot is safe.

US Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were the highest-ranking government officials to receive their doses on Friday.

500,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine arriving in January: Canadian PM

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada will be getting 500,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine in January.

Trudeau says he also expects to get 168,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine before the end of December, pending approval that is expected soon.

The premier added that Canada has the most vaccines secured per capita and the most diverse portfolio of vaccine options in the world. But most Canadians are not expected to get the shot until well into 2021.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks to a patient after they received one of the first COVID-19 vaccinations at the Civic Hospital in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada December 15, 2020 [Blair Gable/Reuters]

South Africa’s coronavirus cases cross 900,000- health ministry

South Africa’s total reported coronavirus cases surpassed 900,000, just a fortnight after it reported crossing 800,000, signaling a rapid rise in infections in the country battling a second wave.

The country, which is the worst hit in the continent, reported its first case in March and saw peak infections in July when daily cases almost touched 14,000.

Mali shuts bars, schools and restaurants to fight virus

Mali announced it would close bars and restaurants for two weeks, close fairs and shutter schools until January 10 to fight the novel coronavirus.

Hospitals are overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases in the vast Sahel country, torn by jihadist attacks and currently under a shaky caretaker government following an August coup.

The closure of bars and restaurants will start from midnight Saturday, government spokesman Hamadoun Toureh said after a cabinet meeting.

Mali has so far officially recorded 6,049 coronavirus infections of which 211 have been fatal in a country of 20 million [File: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

Mexico City suspends non-essential activities as virus cases rise

Mexico City and the neighbouring State of Mexico will suspend non-essential activities from this weekend because of rising coronavirus cases, the mayor said on Friday.

Only essential activities such as the sale of food, energy, transport, manufacturing and financial services will be allowed, Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum said.

WHO investigators head to China in early January

The head of emergencies at the World Health Organization said a team of international experts looking into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic will travel to China in the first week of January, and they won’t be “supervised by Chinese officials”.

Dr. Michael Ryan said there will be “quarantine arrangements” for the team that will have to comply with risk-management measures in Chinese regulation, but the team will visit the suspected site of the outbreak in the city of Wuhan.

At a virtual news conference, they also said three-quarters of cases were occurring in the Americas, and thanked Canada for committing to donate vaccine doses to other countries.

France’s Macron blames his COVID on negligence, bad luck

French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday blamed his COVID-19 on a combination of negligence and bad luck, urging his compatriots to stay safe as critics called out slip-ups in his behaviour to prevent infection, from a close-quarters handshake to repeated big-group meals over the past week.

In what looked like a self-shot video from the presidential retreat in Versailles where he was isolating with symptoms that included headaches, fatigue and a dry cough, Macron promised to give daily updates and be “totally transparent” about the evolution of his illness.

Austria to enter third virus lockdown from December 26

Austria will enter its third coronavirus lockdown between December 26 and January 24, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said, as the country struggles with a new wave of infections.

But Kurz said those who take part in a planned series of mass tests between January 15 and 17 will be allowed more freedom, such as visiting cultural events and restaurants.

Virus outlier Sweden adopts more restrictions as cases rise

Sweden is tightening nationwide coronavirus restrictions by requiring many people to work from home and reducing the number who can gather in restaurants, shops and gyms starting next week, but the government decided against ordering the country’s first full lockdown to control a recent spike in virus cases, the prime minister said.

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said “the situation continues to be very serious,” which is why the government is introducing new limits on public activities. The new restrictions will take effect on December 24.

The Scandinavian country has not gone into lockdowns or closed businesses, relying instead on citizens’ sense of civic duty to control infections.

The new restrictions taking effect on December 24 include making face masks mandatory on public transport and pushing back a nationwide cutoff time for bars and restaurants to sell alcohol to 8pm instead of 10pm [File: Fredrik Sandberg/TT New Agency/Reuters]

Italy reports 674 COVID-19 deaths on Friday, 17,992 new cases

Italy has recorded 674 coronavirus-related deaths against 683 the day before, the health ministry said, while the daily tally of new infections decreased to 17,992 from 18,236.

There were 179,800 swabs carried out in the past day, down from a previous 185,320 the ministry said.

The first Western country hit by the virus, Italy has seen 67,894 COVID-19 deaths since its outbreak emerged in February, the highest toll in Europe and the fifth-highest in the world.

Berlin film fest postponed, divided into online and live events

Berlin’s international film festival has postponed its February 2021 edition as the coronavirus pandemic continues to take a harsh toll on the global entertainment industry.

Europe’s first major cinema showcase of the year, the annual Berlinale, as the event is known, will now take place as a strictly digital event for industry players in March.

An international jury, whose previous presidents include Meryl Streep and Tilda Swinton, will watch the films in competition in Berlin and choose the winners of the Golden and Silver Bear top prizes.

Featured films would only be screened for the public in June, the festival said in a statement [File: Michael Sohn/AP]

Switzerland closes restaurants, venues amid virus surge

Swiss restaurants, cultural venues and sporting facilities must close for one month starting on Tuesday, the government decided in reaction to stubbornly high coronavirus infection numbers.

Although Switzerland has one of Europe’s highest infection rates per 100,000 people, it has so far skirted tougher lockdown measures.

VP Pence gets a jab as Moderna vaccine nears US approval

US Vice President Mike Pence received a COVID-19 jab on live television as the country prepared to greenlight its second vaccine in a boost to the planet’s unprecedented immunisation campaign.

Pence’s move comes as inoculation efforts are unfurling around the world in the race to halt a pandemic that has killed at least 1.66 million and infected more than 74 million people.

Read more here.

Vice President Mike Pence receives a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine shot at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex, Friday, December 18, 2020, in Washington [Andrew Harnik/AP]

COVAX programme doubles global vaccine supply deals to two billion doses

The COVAX alliance which aims to secure fair access to COVID-19 vaccines for poor countries says it now had agreements in place for nearly two billion doses, roughly doubling its supply, with the first deliveries due in early 2021.

The initiative, co-led by the GAVI vaccine alliance, the WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), said it aimed to deliver 1.3 billion doses of approved vaccines next year to 92 eligible low- and middle-income economies.

Top Spain court declines to probe gov’t over pandemic

Spain’s Supreme Court has refused requests that it investigate the government over its alleged mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic which has killed more than 48,000 people in the country.

The court said it had rejected 50 complaints that specifically targeted the government, arguing the complaints were not detailed enough to charge top officials.

People watch from their balconies the unveiling of a monument to honour the health workers who have died from COVID-19 in Madrid, Spain, December 18, 2020 [Manu Fernandez/Pool/Reuters]

European Commission embarrassed by vaccine price leak

The European Commission has refused to comment directly on a leak of how much it would pay for COVID-19 vaccine doses, stressing confidentiality clauses with the companies involved.

Spokesmen for the EU executive were questioned about the information revealed on Thursday in a tweet by a junior minister in Belgium’s government that gave a cost breakdown of six vaccines in the Commission’s portfolio.

The tweet was deleted shortly afterwards, but screengrabs of it were quickly posted on social media.

Hello, this is Usaid Siddiqui in Toronto, Canada, taking over from my colleague Virginia Pietromarchi.

UK cases rise sharply after three weeks of falls

The prevalence of COVID-19 cases in the United Kingdom has risen sharply and is back above 500,000 infections in the latest weekly data, said the Office for National Statistics, after dropping in the three previous weeks.

The news came as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he hoped the UK would not need to go into a third lockdown after Christmas.

India says ready to soon start voluntary vaccination

India’s government has said it could soon start voluntary inoculation against the COVID-19 disease as it considers emergency use authorisation for three vaccine candidates including those from AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech.

‘Europe’s moment’: some EU countries to start vaccinations

Spain will start immunising people against the coronavirus on December 27, a day after it receives the first doses of a vaccine, said Health Minister Salvador Illa.

Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis also said he is expecting the first batch of the vaccine to arrive in the country on December 26 and have the first inoculations the following day in five hospitals in Athens and then in Thessaloniki.

Both announcements came a day after European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen announced the EU would start COVID-19 jabs between December 27 and 29, saying it was “Europe’s moment” in the battle against the virus.

Spain’s Supreme Court orders probe into nursing home deaths

Spain’s Supreme Court has ordered an investigation into the deaths of elderly people in nursing homes and the lack of protective gear for health workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Magistrates were asked to find out if deaths at nursing homes “were associated with political, administrative or management decisions and whether those decisions are criminally reproachable”.

More than 20,000 people died of COVID-19 or suspected COVID-19 in nursing homes in Spain [File: Nacho Doce/Reuters]

At least 20,000 people died of COVID-19 or suspected COVID-19 in nursing homes in Spain during the first coronavirus wave, according to preliminary official data reported by El Pais newspaper and broadcaster RTVE.

Spain has been one of Europe’s countries hardest-hit by the pandemic which has killed more than 48,700 people.

First vaccines in Ukraine expected in February: PM

A woman wearing a protective face mask walks past Christmas trees, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Kyiv, Ukraine [Gleb Garanich/Reuters]

Ukraine’s government expects the first doses of COVID-19 vaccine may arrive in the country in February, Prime Minister Denys Shmygal told Parliament.

Separately, the health minister, Maksym Stepanov, said Ukraine wanted to resume production of its own vaccine candidate and a clinical trial was being prepared, without giving details.

Ukraine has yet to give official approval to any vaccine.

Austria to go into third lockdown after Christmas

Austria will go into a third coronavirus lockdown after Christmas until January 18, according to several Austrian media outlets including national news agency APA.

The lockdown will last longer for those who do not get tested for the coronavirus, while those who test negative will be able to come out of lockdown, several outlets reported

Tourism back to 1990 level: UNWTO

International arrivals fell by more than 70 percent throughout the first 10 months of 2020, marking the worst year on record in the history of tourism, said the UN’s World Tourism Organization.

According to its latest data, the UN agency said destinations welcomed 900 million fewer international tourists between January and October compared with the previous year for a loss of some $1.1 trillion in international tourism receipts.

France: Return to ‘normal’ life not before late next year

For life to be back to “normal”, the French population will probably have to wait until late 2021 (from September), said a senior government scientific adviser.

“We have a virus which continues to circulate strongly while we are just coming out of a second lockdown,” immunologist Jean-François Delfraissy also told BFM television.

France reported another 18,254 new infections in the past 24 hours and its death toll is just less than 60,000 [File: Christian Hartmann/Reuters]

The health expert’s comments were made a day after President Emmanuel Macron tested positive for COVID-19 as the country is witnessing a rise in infections ahead of the Christmas holidays.

France reported another 18,254 new infections in the past 24 hours and its death toll is just less than 60,000.

Thailand relaxes travel curbs for some countries

Thailand has eased travel restrictions for citizens from 56 countries in a bid to boost the country’s pandemic-hit tourism industry although visitors will be required to undergo a mandatory two-week hotel quarantine.

Thailand has eased travel restrictions for citizens from 56 countries [Mladen Antonov/AFP]

Tourists from countries including Australia, France and the US can travel without visas, but would need a certificate to show they were free of COVID-19 72 hours before travel and a reservation at a quarantine hotel, Taweesin Visanuyothin, a spokesman for Thailand’s COVID-19 task force said on Thursday.

Read the full story here.

New England lockdown can’t be ruled out: Minister

A new national lockdown in England cannot be ruled out after Christmas, said British schools minister Nick Gibb.

Northern Ireland and Wales have both outlined plans to head back into lockdown after Christmas to control infection rates, raising suggestions that England might follow suit.

Sri Lanka: Outrage over forced cremation of Muslim COVID victims

Muslims in Sri Lanka are outraged over the forced cremation of a 20-day-old COVID-19 victim last week against the family’s wishes, the latest in more than a dozen such cremations in the Buddhist-majority country since the pandemic started.

Ignoring the WHO’s guidelines which permit both burials and cremations, Sri Lanka in March made cremation mandatory for people who die or are suspected to have died from the coronavirus infection.

Read the full story here.

Countries’ latest figures

Tunisia, Lebanon and Gaza reported more cases in the past 24 hours as they struggle to contain the outbreak.

Tunisia: 115,966 cases (+1,419); 4,032 deaths (+35)

Lebanon: 152,893 cases (+960), 1,248 deaths (+14)

Gaza: 32,158 cases (+997), 232 deaths

A Palestinian man, wrapped in a plastic sheet as a preventive measure against COVID-19, sits in a car as he waits to leave Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip [File: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters]

Russia signs more vaccine deals with India

India will produce about 300 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines next year, a Russian official was quoted as saying, nearly three times the previously known number as deals have been signed with more manufacturers.

Russia is already testing the first samples of Sputnik V that were produced in India, its embassy in New Delhi said on Twitter.

India is the world’s biggest vaccine maker and its pharmaceutical industry is freeing up capacity and accelerating investments ahead of the global rush for COVID-19 shots.

Burundian ex-president dies from COVID-19

The former president of Burundi, Pierre Buyoya, has died in Paris of COVID-19 at the age of 71 [Thierry Roge/Reuters]

The former president of Burundi, Pierre Buyoya, has died in Paris of COVID-19 at the age of 71, several close relatives told AFP news agency.

Several other relatives confirmed the death of Buyoya, who served as the special envoy of the African Union to Mali and the Sahel from 2012 until November this year.

Indonesia’s capital steps up restrictions

The Indonesian capital Jakarta is imposing a new round of restrictions starting from Friday to January 8.

According to the new regulations, restaurants, shopping malls, movie theatres and tourist sites must shut by 9pm (14:00 GMT), while offices must slash their capacity by 50 percent and close by 7pm (00:00 GMT).

Public transport will function until 8pm (13:00 GMT) only.

Movements within the city will be monitored, with travellers entering or leaving the capital expected to show a negative result of a rapid antigen test, according to local media.

Healthcare workers wearing protective suits carry a COVID-19 patient amid the coronavirus pandemic in Jakarta, Indonesia [Fsauzan/Reuters]

Study offers insights on pregnant women with COVID-19

A small study on 16 pregnant women with COVID-19 found no evidence of virus transmission between the mother and the baby, shedding some light into a still unknown area.

The Singapore study also found that babies born to infected mothers have antibodies against the coronavirus.

The WHO says pregnant women can be badly affected by some respiratory infections, and that it is not known whether mothers with COVID-19 can pass the virus to their babies during pregnancy or delivery.

India close to 10 million infections

A health worker in personal protective equipment checks the temperature of passengers at a railway station in Mumbai, India [Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters]

India’s infection tally has almost reached 10 million, with 9,979,447 cases.

The country is getting close to passing the grim milestone as 22,890 new infections were registered during the past 24 hours, according to the latest data from the federal health ministry.

India has recorded the world’s second-highest number of infections behind the US, but numbers have dipped steadily since hitting a peak in September. Daily cases were below 30,000 for the fifth straight day on Friday.

China to vaccinate 50 million people

China is preparing to vaccinate 50 million people before the start of the Lunar New Year travel season early next year.

Health experts from the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention across the country were called for a training meeting on Wednesday to get ready for mass vaccination, the South China Morning Post reported.

The plan is to distribute 100 million doses of the two-dose inactivated vaccines made by Chinese firms Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech Ltd, the SCMP said.

Germany’s confirmed coronavirus cases rise by 33,777

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany increased by 33,777 to 1,439,938, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed on Friday.

The reported death toll rose by 813 to 24,938, the tally showed.

People queue to receive FFP2 masks for free at a pharmacy as a measure of protection, amid the coronavirus pandemic during lockdown in Berlin, Germany [Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters]

South Korea reports more than 1,000 coronavirus cases for third straight day

South Korea has reported 1,062 new coronavirus cases, its second-highest ever daily tally, as the government warned businesses it was unacceptable for them to try to dodge shut-down orders by tricking the system.

The daily number was above 1,000 for the third straight day for the first time, data from the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) showed.

The rash of new cases has shaken a country that has for months been held up as a mitigation success story. But despite its total tally rising to 47,515 infections, South Korea has only suffered 645 deaths.

While the government agonised over whether to tighten up social distancing, which would mean ordering 1.2 million business to suspend operations, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said everyone had to play by the rules.

Australia imposes border curbs as Sydney virus cluster grows; Christmas travel chaos

Australian states and territories on Friday began imposing border restrictions after 28 COVID-19 cases were detected from a cluster on Sydney’s northern beaches, with fears the number of infections will rise.

Health authorities fear the cluster may have spread to other areas of Sydney, Australia’s most populous city, as they have yet to determine the source of the infections.

NSW has urged about a quarter of a million residents in the affected suburbs in Sydney to stay home for three days.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies