England to open field hospitals as COVID-19 cases surge

China reports first case of UK COVID variant; Turkey set to begin 4-day lockdown; India clampdowns on New Year events.

England has decided to reopen its Nightingale field hospitals as a infections rise [File: Frank Augstein/AP]

England prepares to reopen its Nightingale field hospitals as a surge in cases of the new strain of coronavirus has put pressure on hospital beds.

China has detected its first imported case of the new coronavirus variant found in a 23-year-old woman who returned from the United Kingdom.

A four-day lockdown is set to begin in Turkey in a bid to stem the spread of COVID-19 over the New Year’s holiday.

New Year’s Eve marks one year since the WHO first mentioned mysterious pneumonia in China later identified as COVID-19, which went on in 2020 to kill more than 1.79 million people and devastate the global economy in unprecedented ways.

Here were the updates from Thursday:

Drugmakers to hike prices for 2021 as pandemic, political pressure put revenues at risk

Drugmakers including Pfizer Inc , Sanofi SA, and GlaxoSmithKline Plc plan to raise US prices on more than 300 drugs in the United States on January 1, according to drugmakers and data analyzed by healthcare research firm 3 Axis Advisors.

The hikes come as drugmakers are reeling from effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has reduced doctor visits and demand for some drugs.

They are also fighting new drug price cutting rules from the Trump administration, which would reduce the industry’s profitability.

A Walgreens Pharmacist prepares a Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine at Crown Heights Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, a nursing home facility in Brooklyn, New York [File: Yuki Iwamura/Reuters}


France’s reports near 20,000 infections in one day

The French health ministry reported 19,927 new coronavirus infections over the past 24 hours, down from Wednesday’s more than one-month high of 26,457 but still far from the government’s target of less than 5,000 daily additional infections.

France, which has been criticized for a vaccination campaign seen as too slow, did nonetheless see the number of persons hospitalised for the disease decline for the third day running, relieving some stress on the healthcare system.

Macron pledges no ‘unjustifiable delays’ in Covid vaccinations

French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to avoid “unjustifiable delays” in efforts to immunise citizens against COVID-19 following criticism over the slow pace of the inoculation campaign.

But in his New Year’s address to the nation Macron also struck a defensive note, saying he would let “no-one play with the safety” of the vaccination drive.

Since Sunday, France has given only about 100 people the Pfizer-BioNTech jab [File: Ian Langsdon/EPA-EFE]

Travellers entering Norway to be tested upon arrival

People travelling to Norway will be required to undergo coronavirus testing as of January 2, the government said.

People should be tested as soon as possible upon entering the country at the airport or other border crossings, and no later than one day after they arrive, or risk a fine, the government said.

Uncomfortable: US consumer comfort index tumbles amid COVID surge

A gauge of US consumer sentiment dropped last week to a four-month low as Americans grew more pessimistic about the state of the national economy and the resurgence of coronavirus cases.

The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index fell 2.4 points in the week that included Christmas to 44.6, the lowest since the period ended August 23, data released Thursday showed. The sentiment measure is now only a third of the way back from its pre-pandemic level.

Read more here.

France to open city COVID-19 vaccination centres before start of February: Minister

Health Minister Olivier Veran says France will open COVID-19 vaccination centres in cities before the start of February, amid growing criticism that the programme is rolling out too slowly.

Veran said on Twitter the government had decided to “speed up protection of priority public”, meaning medical workers aged older than 50 would get a vaccine from Monday.

Irish virus spread worse than formal reporting: Health official

Some 4,000 additional positive tests for COVID-19 in the last two to three days have yet to be formally confirmed, meaning the situation is worse than recent record daily figures suggest, a senior Irish health official said.

Ireland reported more than 1,500 cases for the third day in a row on Thursday.

To relieve extreme pressure on the testing system, asymptomatic close contacts of confirmed cases will no longer be advised to get tested and will instead be asked to restrict their movements for 14 days.

Turkey’s death toll rises by 239: Ministry

Turkey’s coronavirus death toll has increased by 239 in the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed, bringing the total number of deaths to 20,881.

The number of new cases stood at 14,380 over the same period, bringing total cases since the beginning of the pandemic to 2,208,652.

A Fatih Municipality worker in a protective suit disinfects the Ottoman-era Fatih Mosque to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Istanbul, Turkey December 30, 2020 [Murad Sezer/Reuters]

NBA to require contact-tracing sensors

The NBA is planning to beef up its ability to track the contacts of players and some team staff members as the league continues to fight its battle with coronavirus.

ESPN reported that the NBA is expected to require players and others in Tier 1 and Tier 2 groups to wear the Kinexon SafeZone contact sensor devices while they are taking part in all team activities, except for games, beginning January 7.

France detects case of South African coronavirus variant

France has detected its first case of the South African variant of the coronavirus, the health ministry said on Thursday.

The 501.V2 Variant was detected by South African authorities in mid-December.

Cases have since been found in Japan and Britain among others.

The variant, believed to be more easily transmitted like another version found in Britain, was discovered in France in a man who had returned from South Africa to his home in the Haut-Rhin region which borders Switzerland [Michel Euler/AP]

England readies Nightingale field hospitals as infections surge

England is preparing to reopen its Nightingale field hospitals as a surge in cases of the new strain of coronavirus has put pressure on hospitals.

A spokesman for the state-run National Health Service said the temporary facilities across England “are being readied to admit patients once again should they be needed”.

He said that “in anticipation of pressures rising from the spread of the new variant infection,” the authorities asked the NHS to ensure the Nightingale hospital in London was “reactivated and ready to admit patients as needed, and that process is under way”.

Mexican president sees main vaccinations done by April

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said the main part of the vaccination drive against the novel coronavirus in Mexico will have to be completed by April.

“I think that by April, the majority of us Mexicans, the most vulnerable, will have been vaccinated,” Lopez Obrador told a regular government news conference.

Maria Irene Ramirez receives the first injection with a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at General Hospital, in Mexico City, Mexico, December 24, 2020 [Edgard Garrido/Reuters]

Portugal’s cases hit record high as New Year’s restrictions kick in

Portugal’s daily number of coronavirus cases has reached a record high of 7,627 as the country prepares for a subdued New Year’s Eve with an 11pm curfew and no travel between municipalities.

The country, which has so far registered 413,678 cases and 6,906 deaths from the virus, eased restrictions around Christmas but has cracked down again on New Year’s Eve.

Virus-ravaged oil market collapses by a fifth in 2020

World oil prices have slumped by more than a fifth this year as the coronavirus savaged the world’s appetite for crude, despite a vaccine-driven upturn at the end of 2020.

Europe’s benchmark contract North Sea crude stood at $51.13 per barrel in mid-afternoon deals on Thursday. That was a hefty 22.5 percent lower than the same stage a year earlier.

The oil market had begun 2020 on the front foot, with prices rising as simmering tensions in the crude-rich Middle East region threatened to disrupt valuable supplies.

Ukraine seeks 16 million vaccine doses under COVAX scheme

Ukraine hopes to double the eight million COVID-19 vaccine doses guaranteed under the global COVAX scheme, set up to provide vaccines to poorer countries, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said.

“Eight million doses we are guaranteed to receive through the global COVAX mechanism. We are also working to increase supply through COVAX to 16 million doses,” Zelenskyy said on Telegram.

Hungary says will not use Russian vaccine due to lack of capacity

Hungary will buy vaccines either through the European Union’s procurement mechanism or directly from China because Russia does not have enough capacity to manufacture vaccines, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff has said.

Hungary has participated in Russia’s testing efforts and was an early recipient of small batches of Russia’s Sputnik-V vaccine, raising alarm among European peers that it would bypass the EU’s approval mechanism.

A view shows vials during the production of Gam-COVID-Vac, also known as Sputnik-V, a vaccine against the coronavirus disease at a facility of BIOCAD biotechnology company in Saint Petersburg, Russia [File: Anton Vaganov/Reuters]

China reports first case of new coronavirus variant: CDC

China has detected its first imported case of the new coronavirus variant that is spreading rapidly around Britain, according to a publication run by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The variant was detected in a 23-year-old female student returning to China from Britain, who was tested in Shanghai on December 14, according to the latest edition of China CDC Weekly.

The case “poses a great potential threat to the prevention and control of COVID-19 in China”, the publication said.

Hello. This is Usaid Siddiqui in Toronto, Canada, taking over from my colleague Elizabeth Melimopoulos.

Israel marshals supplies in dash for full vaccination of at-risk groups

Israel is carefully husbanding supplies as it races to vaccinate all vulnerable citizens by late January and push for an early exit from the COVID-19 pandemic, officials have said.

Authorities started vaccinations on December 19, and are now giving more than 150,000 shots a day. Their top priorities are the quarter of Israel’s nine million people who are older than 60, suffer from risky medical conditions or are health workers.

The health ministry is watching supplies closely, officials said. That means pushing back against public expectations that the campaign might soon be opened up to all adults or the at-risk criteria expanded to teachers and other groups.

World begins ushering in locked-down New Year

The world has begun ushering in the New Year, with pandemic controls muting celebrations for billions of people eager to bid farewell to a virus-ridden 2020.

From Sydney to Rome, firework displays, pyre burnings and live performances will be watched online or on television – if they have not been cancelled altogether.

Women walk under an umbrella in front of a 2021 sign displayed in downtown Pristina [Armend Nimani/AFP]


Singapore sees most local coronavirus cases in three months, more of new variant

Singapore has reported five locally transmitted COVID-19 cases, its highest number in nearly three months, and was seeking to verify two others suspected of being infected by a highly contagious variant first discovered in the UK.

The two individuals believed to be infected with the B117 strain, which has prompted new travel curbs worldwide, had both arrived from the UK this month and had earlier tested negative, the health ministry said.

Singapore has reported five locally transmitted COVID-19 cases [File: Reuters]


World risks ‘moral catastrophe’ if COVID shots delayed in Africa, its CDC chief says

The world risks a “moral catastrophe” if COVID-19 vaccinations are delayed in Africa while wealthier regions inoculate their entire populations, the head of the continent’s disease control body has said.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hopes significant vaccination campaigns on the continent will begin in April, its head, John Nkengasong, told reporters.

“That’s a long way to go given that this virus transmits very quickly,” he said, adding that in Africa, “the second wave is here with a vengeance”.

Russia to supply Algeria, Bolivia with Sputnik V vaccine

Russia has signed contracts to supply Bolivia and Algeria with its Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine, the country’s sovereign wealth fund has announced.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) said on Wednesday the agreement would make it possible for more than 20 percent of Bolivia’s population to access the vaccine, which is administered in two doses.

Hope, scepticism as Moscow launches vaccination drive

Vera Stepanova has been waiting nervously at a Moscow clinic for her turn to be vaccinated with Russia’s Sputnik V jab.

The 73-year-old spent a sleepless night in anticipation and says she has no doubts about taking the vaccine.

“I’m so afraid of this disease. We have to protect ourselves,” the retired school principal says, her face covered by a surgical mask. “I waited for my turn and I came with pleasure, hoping that everything will be all right.”

Stepanova was among a group of older Russians receiving the vaccine this week as Moscow launched a campaign to inoculate residents aged older than 60.

South Africa to get a firm date on the delivery of vaccine by early January, experts say

South Africa will have a firm date on when it will get a COVID-19 vaccine in the first few days of January, a senior health ministry official told a television news channel on Thursday.

South Africa is one of approximately 200 countries who have joined the pooled procurement for the coronavirus vaccine, commonly known as COVAX, co-led by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The country, which accounts for more than a third of Africa’s COVID-19 cases, has been battling a surge in coronavirus cases since the end of November, as a new variant called 501.V2 has been infecting even the younger population, unlike the first wave, the government said.

New Delhi leads India clampdown on New Year events

New Delhi and other big cities across India have ordered curfews for New Year’s Eve as they step up efforts to head off a new coronavirus wave.

In the capital, the curfew would run for two days from 11pm until 6am local time with gatherings limited to five people, even before the shutdown, authorities said.

Normally, tens of thousands of revellers pack central New Delhi to see in the New Year.

A woman walks past a painting outside an art school in Mumbai, India [Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters]

Japan confirms six cases of mutated coronavirus variant: Health minister

Japan has been battling a third wave of COVID-19 infections in recent weeks and on Monday started barring the entry of non-resident foreign nationals after detecting variants of the virus from the UK and South Africa.

Shoppers wearing protective masks amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak stand at a crossing at Ameyoko shopping district in Tokyo [Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters]

UK military ready to deliver 100,000 vaccine doses a day

The UK’s armed forces could administer 100,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine a day if required, helping immunise millions of vulnerable people before the spring season, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has said.

Wallace said he had already authorised 130 military planners and personnel to work with the health service on ramping up the vaccine roll-out, and more staff could be used to administer the vaccine itself.

The US detects cases of UK coronavirus variant in Colorado and California

The US states of Colorado and California have recorded what is reportedly the US’s first cases of the particularly infectious coronavirus variant that emerged recently in the UK.

California Governor Gavin Newsom said mandatory constraints on social gatherings and business activities would almost certainly be renewed for at least three more weeks in Southern California – encompassing the state’s biggest metropolitan areas – and its agricultural heartland, the San Joaquin Valley.

The US has recorded more than 19 million infections and 333,000 deaths since the pandemic began. Daily cases are running at more than 180,000 nationwide, with nearly 2,200 Americans dying every 24 hours during the past week.

Singapore begins COVID-19 vaccinations

Singapore has started vaccinating healthcare workers with Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine, kicking off one of Asia’s first inoculation programmes against a pandemic that has killed more than 1.7 million people globally.

Sarah Lim, a 46-year-old nurse, and 43-year-old infectious diseases doctor Kalisvar Marimuthu were among the more than 30 staff at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases who were vaccinated on Wednesday, the health ministry said.

They will return for the second dose of the vaccine on January 20.

China grants ‘conditional’ approval to its first COVID vaccine

China has granted “conditional” market approval to a Sinopharm vaccine with a reported 79 percent efficacy, health authorities said on Thursday, a considerable stride towards inoculating the world’s largest population.

The Sinopharm jab, which surged ahead of a raft of Chinese competitors during phase-three trials, has an efficacy rate lower than rival jabs developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna – with 95 and 94 percent rates respectively.

About 4.5 million doses of largely unproven emergency vaccines made domestically have already been given to health workers and other workers destined for overseas jobs, according to authorities.

Record COVID cases in Tokyo, heavy snow curtail New Year celebrations in Japan

New coronavirus infections in Tokyo have hit a record high of more than 1,300, raising fears of an explosion in cases, local media have reported, as New Year’s Eve celebrations have been curtailed as the country battles a third wave of the pandemic.

Many flights were also cancelled as heavy snowfall hit several areas of Japan.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga urged people to celebrate the New Year quietly and avoid non-essential outings amid the twin crises.

Year-end shoppers wearing protective face masks are seen at a shopping and amusement district, amid the COVID outbreak, in Tokyo [Issei Kato/Reuters]

South Africa reports one-day record of nearly 18,000 COVID cases

South Africa has reported a record 17,710 one-day increase in coronavirus infections, surpassing the previous high of about 14,500 several days ago.

“As of today, the cumulative total of COVID-19 cases identified is 1,039,161 with 17,710 (positivity rate 33 percent) cases identified since the last report,” the health ministry said in a statement. “The positivity rate, being an indicator of the rapidity of spread, remains of major concern,” the ministry said.

The positivity rate is the percentage of people testing positive of total people tested.

Indonesia receives 1.8 million more doses of Sinovac COVID vaccine

Indonesia has received its second batch of coronavirus vaccines from Chinese company Sinovac, the country’s foreign and health ministers said, as the world’s fourth-most populous country prepares a mass inoculation programme expected to take more than a year to complete.

The government took delivery of 1.8 million doses of the Chinese vaccine, adding to the 1.2 million it received on December 6, and aims to vaccinate its population of 267 million people for free, starting with front-line health workers.

In total, Indonesia has secured 329 million vaccine doses, including about 125 million from Sinovac, 50 million from Novavax and 54 million from the global vaccine programme, COVAX.

Philippine islands self-isolate after new COVID variant found in Malaysia

The islands making up a province in the southern Philippines will seal themselves off for an initial two weeks from Monday to keep out a new COVID variant found in nearby Malaysia, its governor said.

Sulu, home to more than 900,000 people, currently has just two known active cases of the coronavirus, from 242 recorded to date in the country, of which 12 were deaths.

“This is for securing our shores from the reported COVID-19 strain in Sabah, Malaysia, considering we are so near,” Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan told ANC news channel on Thursday.

A woman undergoes a swab test amid the COVID pandemic at a testing station in Makati City [File: Reuters/Lisa Marie David]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies