Portugal’s health system near collapse as COVID cases surge

Portugal’s public health system close to being overwhelmed as hospitals in the worst-affected areas are running out of intensive care beds.

The cases, which come a day after a new lockdown was put in place, bring the total number of cases in a country of just over 10 million people to 539,416 [AFP]

Brazilian health regulator Anvisa’s board has voted to approve emergency use of COVID-19 vaccines from China’s Sinovac Biotech and Britain’s AstraZeneca and to begin immunisations as the pandemic enters a deadly second wave.

Anvisa voted unanimously to approve both vaccines on Sunday after almost five hours of deliberation by its board of directors.

Separately, the UK government hopes it can meet its target for rolling out COVID-19 vaccines and be able to consider easing lockdown restrictions by March, Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said.

The coronavirus pandemic is showing no signs of slowing down globally, with infections surging past 94 million and more than two million deaths, with Europe among the hardest-hit parts of the world.

In India, a COVID-19 vaccination drive had a successful start with more than 190,000 people receiving their first jabs and no one hospitalised for major side effects.

Here were the updates from Sunday:

Portuguese hospitals under pressure

Portugal’s public health system is on the verge of collapsing as hospitals in the areas worst-affected by a worrying surge in coronavirus cases are quickly running out of intensive care beds to treat COVID-19 patients.

“Our health system is under a situation of extreme pressure,” Health Minister Marta Temido told reporters on Sunday afternoon after a visit to a struggling hospital. “There is a limit and we are very close to it.”

The health system, which prior to the pandemic had the lowest number of critical care beds per 100,000 inhabitants in Europe, can accommodate a maximum of 672 COVID-19 patients in intensive care units, or ICUs, according to health ministry data.

The number of people in ICUs with COVID-19 reached 647, according to health authority DGS. The Portuguese Association of Hospital Administrators said the number of coronavirus patients needing hospitalisation was likely to dramatically increase over the next week.

The number of people in ICUs with COVID-19 reached 647, according to health authority DGS [File: Reuters]


Portuguese finance minister tests positive for coronavirus after meeting top EU officials

Portugal’s Finance Minister Joao Leao has tested positive for the coronavirus, his office said , a day after he took part in an in-person meeting in Lisbon with top EU officials including Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen.

The 46-year-old minister has so far shown no symptoms and will continue to work from home during a period of self-isolation, a statement from his ministry said. Self-isolation could last between 10 to 14 days.

Leao’s positive test result was announced more than 24 hours after he attended the meeting at the Belem Cultural Center on Friday to discuss Portugal’s top priorities during its six-month EU presidency, which started this month.

Brazil authorises emergency use of vaccines

Earlier this month, Brazil said the Chinese vaccine had been shown to be 50 percent effective in preventing people from contracting the virus.

As for the Oxford vaccine, results published in December found it was 62 percent effective for volunteers given two full doses and 90 percent effective for those given a half dose followed by a full dose.

But both appear to be short of the more than 90 percent effectiveness reported for vaccines developed by US pharmaceutical firms Pfizer and Moderna.

The CoronaVac and Oxford vaccines have been caught up in a political battle in Brazil between Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria and far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, likely opponents in presidential elections next year.

Bolsonaro has repeatedly tried to discredit CoronaVac and described it as “Joao Doria’s Chinese vaccine.”

The CoronaVac and Oxford vaccines have been caught up in a political battle in Brazil [AFP]

UAE and Ireland to complete virus-hit series

UAE and Ireland will play a second one-day international in Abu Dhabi after two matches of the scheduled four-game series were called off due to COVID-19 concerns, officials said.

UAE won the opening encounter on January 8 without vice-captain Chirag Suri and uncapped left-arm spinner Aryan Lakra who both tested positive for coronavirus.

The next two games were then axed despite a series of attempts to reschedule.

“We’re delighted that the go-ahead has been granted for the rescheduled match, and the squad is looking forward to getting back into competitive action,” said Richard Holdsworth, the high-performance director for Cricket Ireland.

Tennis-Cornet apologises for ‘tactless’ remarks on Australian quarantine protocols


Alize Cornet has apologised after many social media users hit out at the Frenchwoman for criticising the country’s strict COVID-19 quarantine protocols ahead of next month’s Australian Open.

Seventy-two players and their entourages have to isolate for two weeks and cannot leave their hotel rooms in Melbourne to train after infections were reported on three flights ferrying players.

Cornet said the situation was “insane” because weeks of training was “going to waste” but was quickly reminded that she was better off than many Victorian residents who endured worse as authorities looked to curb the spread of the virus.

“After my last (deleted) tweet I feel like I need to apologise to you Australian people,” she wrote on Twitter.

Italy reports 377 coronavirus deaths, 12,415 new cases

Italy’s health ministry has reported 377 coronavirus-related deaths within the previous 24 hours, and 12,415 confirmed new infections.
On Saturday it had reported 475 deaths and 16,310 new infections.

Italy has registered 82,177 deaths from COVID-19 since the virus came to light last February, the second-highest toll in Europe and the sixth-highest in the world, from 2.38 million confirmed cases.

Thousands protest in Amsterdam against Dutch coronavirus lockdown

Several thousand people held an unauthorised protest in Amsterdam against a national lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, before being dispersed by riot police.

The protesters gathered on a square in front of the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum art galleries, carrying signs reading “Freedom: stop this siege” and chanting “What do we want? Freedom!”.

None wore masks, which are not mandatory, and few respected social distancing rules.

Authorities had declined an application for the protest to be held on Museum Square. The demonstrators refused to leave when police told them to do so, and some threw fireworks.

Riot police then used water cannon to try to disperse the gathering.

Fauci says 100 million vaccinations in 100 days ‘absolutely a doable thing’

President-elect Joe Biden’s goal of delivering 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine within the first 100 days of his presidency “is absolutely a doable thing,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said.

Fauci, speaking on NBC’s “Meet The Press”, said two new vaccines under development by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson could “very soon” be presented to US regulators for approval, which would increase the pace of vaccinations. “We’re weeks away, not months away, for sure,” he said.

Biden aide says virus vaccine plan on track

Incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain has said the coronavirus pandemic will get worse before it gets better, projecting another 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the first five weeks of President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.

Speaking to CNN’s “State of the Union,” Klain said Biden was inheriting a dire situation, saying even with vaccines, “It’s going to take a while to turn this around.”

Biden has set a goal of injecting 100 million doses of coronavirus vaccine in his first 100 days in office, a goal Klain said they were on pace to meet.

UAE lowers age requirement for COVID-19 vaccines to 16

The United Arab Emirates has lowered the minimum age requirement to receive a COVID-19 vaccination to 16, from 18 previously, the ministry of health has said.

The UAE, made of up seven emirates, is offering all residents and citizens free of charge a vaccine manufactured by Chinese state-backed pharmaceutical giant Sinopharm.

The emirate of Dubai alone is offering citizens and residents the choice of either the Sinopharm or the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Brazil regulator to decide on emergency use of Sinovac, AstraZeneca vaccines

Brazilian health regulator Anvisa has opened an extraordinary meeting of its board of directors to decide whether to approve emergency use of COVID-19 vaccines from China’s Sinovac Biotech and Britain’s AstraZeneca to begin immunizations as the pandemic enters a deadly second wave.

Anvisa’s decision will be a simple majority vote of the board’s five directors. The meeting started just after 10 a.m. local time (1300 GMT) and is expected to last about five hours.

President Jair Bolsonaro, a coronavirus sceptic who has refused to take a vaccine himself, is under growing pressure to start inoculations in Brazil, which has lost more than 200,000 to COVID-19 – the worst death toll outside the US.

Amid COVID-19 surge, South Africa delays reopening schools

Faced with a rapid resurgence of COVID-19 overwhelming the country’s hospitals and driven by a more infectious variant of the virus, South Africa has delayed reopening its schools.

The variant is having far-reaching consequences for Africa’s most developed nation as several countries trying to prevent its spread have stopped or reduced flights with South Africa.

South Africa has the highest prevalence of COVID-19 in Africa with a cumulative total of more than 1.3 million confirmed cases, including 36,851 deaths.

Israel Prison Service to vaccinate Palestinian inmates

The Israel Prison Service has said it will begin vaccinating all incarcerated people against COVID-19, including Palestinians, following calls from right groups, Palestinian officials and Israel’s attorney general.

Israel has given at least one vaccine dose to more than two million of its citizens, a pace widely described as the world’s fastest per capita.

But the state faced harsh criticism when Public Security Minister Amir Ohana said Palestinian prisoners would be the last to get inoculated.

Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit wrote to Ohana condemning the comment as “tainted with illegality”, Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper reported.

Israeli and global rights groups, including Amnesty International, as well as the Palestine Liberation Organization have also issued public calls for Israel to vaccinate the estimated 4,400 Palestinians held in its jails.

Ireland to restrict travel from the UK over new coronavirus strain

Ireland will impose restrictions on flights and ferries from the UK from midnight in response to a new strain of the coronavirus detected there, Transport Minister Eamon Ryan said.

“General travel between here and Britain is going to be restricted, and we will review it on Tuesday morning,” the minister told Virgin Media News. There is an exception for goods traffic and essential supply chain workers.

EU officials seek to ease vaccine concerns

Officials sought to ease concerns in Europe over deliveries of coronavirus vaccines as nations across the world doubled down on restrictions to fight the rampaging pandemic.

US drugmaker Pfizer, which developed the jab in collaboration with Germany’s BioNTech, said it was working to “significantly” scale up production at its plant in Belgium in the second quarter.

After a short delay, deliveries should be back to the original schedule to the EU from January 25.

“There’s a dip,” said France’s Europe minister Clement Beaune. “But it’s better that it happens now when we have stockpiles than when the wider vaccination campaign starts.”

India hails ‘life-saving’ COVID-19 vaccine rollout

India’s Covid-19 vaccination drive had a successful start with more than 190,000 people receiving their first jabs and no one hospitalised for major side effects, the health ministry said, but reports emerged about concerns over the homegrown vaccine.

Authorities have given emergency-use approval for two vaccines – Oxford-AstraZeneca and the homegrown “Covaxin”, which has yet to complete its Phase 3 trials – and plan to immunise some 300 million people in the country of 1.3 billion by July.

Lebanon inks final deal for 2.1 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine

Lebanon’s caretaker health minister signed a final deal to secure 2.1 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine as the country battles a steep rise in infections.

The vaccines are expected to arrive in batches starting in February, the ministry said in a statement.

The ministry is also cooperating with the private sector to secure two million vaccine doses from AstraZeneca and Sinopharm, it added.

Lebanon is under a three-week lockdown that ends on February 1 and a strict 24-hour curfew until January 25 after lax measures over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday period led to a spike in cases.

Oman to close land borders again to curb coronavirus

Oman will close its land borders for one week from Monday to curb the spread of the coronavirus, especially a more contagious variant, state news agency ONA said.

The measure can be extended for longer than the initial one week closure, ONA said, citing a decision by the Gulf state’s coronavirus emergency committee.

The committee is concerned about a new coronavirus variant – although it did not specify which one – as well as lax adherence inside the sultanate with the wearing of face masks and avoidance of large social gatherings.

Oman earlier this month registered its first case of the variant of the virus that emerged in Britain, in a resident who arrived from the UK.

Austria extends lockdown to February 7, toughens measures

The Austrian government is extending the country’s lockdown until February 7 in a drive to push down still-high infection figures as officials worry about the possible effect of new coronavirus variants.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Sunday that some measures will also be tightened as a result of the more infectious variants that were first detected in Britain and South Africa. He said people will now be asked to stay two metres (6.5 feet) apart instead of one metre.

Beginning on January 25, they will also be required to wear full protective masks on public transport and in shops, rather than just fabric face coverings. People on low incomes will get such masks free, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said.

Pakistan approves Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine

Pakistan’s planning minister says the country’s drug regulatory authority has approved the use of Oxford University-AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine and the government is trying to make it available by the first quarter of the year.

Asad Umar, who is also head of the national agency for COVID-19, told a local news station Geo TV  the vaccine in the first phase will be administered to health workers and those aged 65 and above.

Umar said the Chinese company CanSino is also holding clinical trials in Pakistan and hoped its vaccine would also be registered next month.

Pfizer reassures Europe over coronavirus vaccines as pandemic surges

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer tried to ease concerns in Europe about deliveries of its coronavirus vaccine.

Worries have grown that delays in the delivery of Pfizer-BioNTech shots could hamper a European vaccine roll-out which has already faced heavy criticism across the continent.

Work is continuing at the Pfizer plant in Belgium to increase capacity, and the firm and its German partner BioNTech said on Saturday it would allow them to “significantly” scale up vaccine production in the second quarter.


UK hopes it can meet its target for rolling out COVID-19 vaccines

The UK, which has Europe’s highest COVID-19 death toll, has been under a national lockdown since January 5, when schools were closed for most pupils, non-essential businesses were shut to the public and people were ordered to work from home where possible.

“What we want to do is get out of this national lockdown as soon as possible,” Foreign Minister Dominic Raab told Sky News television.

“By early spring, hopefully by March, we’ll be in a position to make those decisions. I think it’s right to say we won’t do it all in one big bang. As we phase out the national lockdown, I think we’ll end up phasing through a tiered approach.”

Chinese city reports coronavirus on ice cream

The coronavirus was found on ice cream produced in eastern China, prompting a recall of cartons from the same batch.

The Daqiaodao Food Co, Ltd factory in Tianjin, adjacent to Beijing, was sealed and its employees were being tested for coronavirus, a city government statement said. There was no indication anyone had contracted the virus from the ice cream.

Most of the 29,000 cartons in the batch had yet to be sold. The government said 390 sold in Tianjin were being tracked down and authorities elsewhere were notified of sales to their areas.


Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies