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Thanksgiving travel this year could strain people’s wallets — and patience


Thanksgiving travel is bouncing back this year — and so are expectations for holiday travel chaos on the roads, rails and in the air.

With rising Covid-19 vaccination rates and the reopening of U.S. borders to vaccinated foreign travelers, the travel industry is bracing for the upcoming holiday rush.

In its holiday travel forecast, AAA said this week it expects more than 53.4 million people to travel between the period Nov. 24 to Nov. 28, up 13 percent from 2020 levels. 

The Transportation Security Administration said it is already screening between 1.9 and 2.2 million people daily, and a looming Nov. 22 deadline for the agency’s workers to be vaccinated has sparked concern about a possible worker shortage and longer security lines during the holiday. A spokeswoman for the TSA told NBC News that it is focused on getting employees vaccinated by the deadline.

Spiking gas prices aren’t deterring travelers this year, either. Around 48 million people will take to the roads this Thanksgiving holiday, according to AAA. At around $3.40, the average price at the pump this week is the highest since 2014, said Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy.

Car rental prices also remain high, after a shortage of crucial semiconductor chips led to a dramatic slowdown in the production of new vehicles during the pandemic, exacerbated by rental companies culling their fleets last year during the pandemic’s travel lull. Daily car rental prices currently average around $84, according to a spokeswoman from travel site Hopper.

This means that travelers should adjust how they make bookings for the holiday season, said Michael Taylor, travel practice lead at JD Power. While travelers typically book a hotel room before looking for a rental car and flight, they should reverse that order, he said, especially in popular holiday destinations like Orlando and Las Vegas where rental cars are costlier and in higher demand.

“This is going to be an expensive holiday for some folks,” Taylor said.

Camille Jones, a clinical social worker in Birmingham, Alabama, plans to fly to Orlando with her husband and two-month-old baby to spend the holidays with her in-laws. While the family considered driving to Orlando, renting a car would have cost them about $590. The two roundtrip plane tickets they ended up purchasing totaled $530.

To further cut costs, the family bought tickets to fly to Orlando from Atlanta rather than Birmingham, saving them around $240. Jones said the two-hour drive to Atlanta is worth it, especially since they frequently visit family there. She and her husband plan to arrive at the airport two hours before their flight, especially since they have a baby in tow.

“We’ve never traveled with a baby, so I know we’re going to slow it down a bit,” Jones said.

Travelers should consider purchasing travel insurance or using travel credit cards with built-in insurance, said Sara Rathner, travel and credit card expert at Nerdwallet. She added that travelers should also look into cashing in airline or hotel credits from canceled 2020 travel. 

Last month, Southwest Airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights, costing the company $75 million and impacting tens of thousands of passengers. The company has since announced it has trimmed its flight schedule to better reflect staffing levels. More recently, American Airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights over Halloween weekend, citing staff shortages and inclement weather. 

Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, the union representing American Airlines pilots, said the airline’s record of slow recovery after flight changes could pose problems during the upcoming holiday rush, especially if there is bad weather. Further complicating the problem, holiday travel occurs toward the end of the month, when pilots and flight attendants are close to maxing out their contract hours.

David Seymour, American’s chief operating officer, said in a note to staff on Nov. 5 that 1,800 flight attendants returned to operations this month and the airline plans to add 800 more in December. Seymour also said employees will receive holiday pay on peak travel days in November and December, and he expects 4,000 new staff members to join this quarter.

Weary travelers should be prepared for shuttered stores and restaurants at the airport, Taylor said. Labor shortages and inflation continue to plague the hospitality industry, meaning any stores and kiosks that are open will have higher prices, fewer options and longer lines.

Delaware North Travel, a New York-based hospitality company that operates food and retail concessions at airports, closed down some of its locations during the pandemic and cut back on hours due to labor shortages. The hospitality company’s operating hours are based on the number of passengers boarding each day and when certain gates are used, which means customers sometimes face longer lines. 

To combat inflationary pressures, Delaware North Travel increased prices on some of its menu items and re-engineered some items, said Bob Wilson, Delaware North Travel’s president. For example, a meal with eight chicken wings now features boneless wings, and some fresh food options were turned into grab-and-gos. Some portion sizes have been reduced.

Despite the anticipated hurdles, many travelers are planning a packed schedule.

Sarah Goldstrom, who works in the film industry, plans to fly on Thanksgiving Day from Philadelphia to Greenville, South Carolina, with a layover in Atlanta to spend the evening with family. After filling up on turkey, she plans on flying to New York to attend a Harry Styles concert before returning home to Atlanta. 

“Thanksgiving’s kind of chaotic anyways,” she said.



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Pilot shortage puts strain on travel


MADISONVILLE, Ky. (WFIE) – Pilot shortages have been affecting airlines across the country.

Madisonville Community College’s Aviation Program Director Todd Smith spoke with 14 News and explained that the industry often fluctuates, which causes shortages.

“As newer models of airplanes fly farther, the world opens up,” he said. “It creates that natural shortage.”

He said it’s always a struggle to fill open positions because it requires anywhere from six to ten years to become a pilot for a major airline, and that can be a deterrent for many would-be aviators.

With a shortage already growing in 2019, Smith said the COVID-19 pandemic made circumstances worse.

“Airlines did a lot of downsizing through numerous different methods – a lot of furloughing and early retirements,” he said.

This created a large deficit, and it has started to affect passengers.

“It creates an instant like what we saw with Southwest Airlines a few weeks ago where thousands – I know hundreds, maybe even thousands of flights had to be canceled,” he said.

Still, Smith said the industry has ways of recovering.

Typically, he said they will partner with universities and flight schools to make learning more accessible and to create straighter paths to employment.

He said it’s just a matter of time before the situation improves.

Copyright 2021 WFIE. All rights reserved.



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The travel-related origin and spread of SARS-CoV-2 B.1.620 strain


The last few months have seen the emergence of new variants of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), even as other variants fade away. Some of these variants have biological or epidemiological characteristics of particular interest since they may promote the virus’s rapid spread or cause more severe illness.

A new preprint research paper posted to the medRxiv* server describes a new variant B.1.620, which appeared in Lithuania, and is now prevalent in several countries in Europe, as well as in central Africa.

Earlier, three viral lineages have been classified as variants of concern (VOCs), namely the UK variant (B.1.1.7), the South African (B.1.351), and the Brazil (P.1) variant. A VOC has higher transmissibility or virulence, which potentially evades immune neutralization.

Background of B.1.620 emergence

The B.1.177 lineage spread widely in Spain first, before its transmission to the rest of Europe. Such phenomena are driven by restrictions on human movements, lack of monitoring of the outbreak, and time. In Europe, genomic sequencing projects have picked up the rapid rise to dominance of the UK strain, displacing other widely circulating strains.

In Uganda, too, the lineage called A.23.1 rose to prominence against a setting of low genomic sequencing. Such viral lineages are often observed first, not in their country of origin but as a single case or as a chain of transmission, beginning with a traveler from the host country, in another country that does sequencing on a greater scale.

As more countries launch their own SARS-CoV-2 sequencing programs, introduced strains are easier to detect since they tend to be atypical of a host country’s endemic SARS-CoV-2 diversity, particularly so when introduced lineages have accumulated genetic diversity not observed previously, a phenomenon characterized by long branches in phylogenetic trees.

For instance, lineage B.1.380 was prevalent in Rwanda and Uganda for a time but was then found to give way suddenly to A.23.1. The latter was first sequenced in Uganda, which had started sequencing by then. This program then detected the first occurrences of B.1.1.7 and B.1.351.

Maximum likelihood tree of lineage B.1.620 in Europe. Relationships between B.1.620 genomes, coloured by country of origin (same as Figure 1) with a thicker coloured outline indicating country of origin for travel cases. At least seven genomes shown (samples collected in Belgium, Switzerland, France, and Equatorial Guinea) are from individuals who returned from Cameroon, one is from a traveler returning from Mali and one Lithuanian case returned from France. Genomes from CAR and Czechia (returning traveler from Mali) are descended from the original B.1.620 genotype, while the genome from Equatorial Guinea is already closely related to genomes found in UK and happens to be a travel case from Cameroon. Each genome is connected to available geographic location in Europe with smallest circles indicating municipality-level precision, intermediate size corresponding to county level information (centered on county capital) and largest circle sizes indicating country level information (centered on country capital).

Maximum likelihood tree of lineage B.1.620 in Europe. Relationships between B.1.620 genomes, colored by country of origin (same as Figure 1) with a thicker colored outline indicating the country of origin for travel cases. At least seven genomes shown (samples collected in Belgium, Switzerland, France, and Equatorial Guinea) are from individuals who returned from Cameroon, one is from a traveler returning from Mali and one Lithuanian case returned from France. Genomes from CAR and Czechia (returning traveler from Mali) are descended from the original B.1.620 genotype, while the genome from Equatorial Guinea is already closely related to genomes found in the UK and happens to be a travel case from Cameroon. Each genome is connected to the available geographic location in Europe with the smallest circles indicating municipality-level precision, intermediate size corresponding to county-level information (centered on county capital) and largest circle sizes indicating country level information (centered on country capital).

B.1.620 lineage in Europe

B.1.620 genomes have been found not only in Lithuania but in other places in Europe, though they do not appear to have been triggered by the same introduction event. In both Germany and France, new clades are being observed which have nearly identical genomes.

France showed a cluster of asymptomatic B.1.620 infections as part of a single chain of transmission, with another four cases outside this area. The index case is yet to be identified, but this shows community spread rather than importation.

Again, Spain and Belgium have shown the presence of B.1.620 genomes on routine surveillance sequencing.

In Lithuania, the E484K mutation in B.1.620 has been observed only in B.1.1.7 other than 13 cases of infection with B.1.351 and one with the B.1.1.318 lineage. None of these latter lineages were present in Utena county.

Many cases in Europe have had a history of travel from Cameroon, and sequencing in central African countries, namely, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has repeatedly thrown up B.1.620 genomes.

Study aims

In the current study, the researchers characterized the mutations of this genome. Many have already been observed in one or other of the VOCs, but not together. They also concluded that the lineage probably cropped up first in Cameroon and is likely to reach a high prevalence in Central Africa.

Lineage B.1.620 has multiple mutations

Many Cameroon genomes uploaded to the GISAID (Global Initiative for Sharing All Influenza Data) database show surprising diversity. A few share mutations with B.1.620, with the earliest to appear being, possibly, synonymous mutations at 15324 and the spike mutation T1027I. These are also present in B.1.619.

The spike E484K mutation is also found in a closely related lineage from Cameroon. All these samples were collected in January and February 2021.

The B.1.620 lineage has 23 mutations and deletions compared to the reference strain. It carries a large number of unique mutations and deletions, which are dissimilar to the closest related strain in Lithuania. Though these mutations are shared by several VOCs, this lineage does not appear to have arisen by the recombination of such strains.

The D614G mutation is now present in most circulating strains, including this one. This promotes viral infectivity, perhaps by enhancing the ‘up’ conformation of the spike receptor-binding domain (RBD).

Immune evasion by B.1.620

The B.1.620 lineage also has several mutations in the N-terminal domain (NTD) of the spike protein, among which some remain of unknown impact. Of the rest, all partially resist neutralization by convalescent serum and NTD-targeting monoclonal antibodies. This may point to the origin of these mutations as immune-evading viral adaptations.

The S477N and E484K mutations in the RBD are found in other VOCs, but the B.1.620 does not carry either the N501Y or K417 mutations. Both the former mutations facilitate broad evasion of antibody-mediated neutralization. They also promote high-affinity binding of the RBD to its receptor, the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2).

Both are on the same peripheral loop at the binding interface of these two proteins, and their presence in combination improves the energetic profile favorably relative to the reference genome.

High frequency of B.1.620 likely in Central Africa

When local sequencing programs are not robust, sequencing of infected travelers is the second surveillance option to pick up and monitor different lineages. In the current study, the researchers point out that seven B.1.620 genomes were from Cameroon-returned travelers, while six were from locally collected samples in the Central African Republic (CAR), near its Cameroon border. Thus, this lineage appears to be prevalent in this geographic region.

Adequate sequencing is being carried out in several countries neighboring Cameroon, namely, South Africa and Angola to the south, Kenya to the east, Togo, and Nigeria to the northwest. The lineage, therefore, appears to have originated within the area of central Africa bounded by the borders of these countries.

Travel histories from European cases indicate separate introductions, from Cameroon, and from Mali. In one case, at least, community spread appears to have been established, with the index patient developing the infection in Belgium well beyond the incubation period of the virus and long after his return from Cameroon. Another case had no history of travel at all.

The phylogeny of B.1.620

Phylogenetic study in Africa shows that the variant probably arose in Cameroon, and then spread to both the Central African Republic and Equatorial Guinea. It then spread to various countries in Europe through multiple introductions. It appears to have entered the USA and England, while it entered Lithuania at least twice.

Many travelers have departed from Cameroon for other African countries, indicating this lineage is likely to be widespread in Africa by now. Even with the low levels of sequencing in Equatorial Guinea and DRC, its detection supports this assumption.

What are the implications?

The discovery of a novel lineage bearing many mutations of concern and with indications that they are introduced from locations where sequencing is not routine, is concerning, and such occurrences may become an alarming norm. The emergence of B.1.1.7 was unprecedented and has had a devastating impact on the state of the pandemic, so it is concerning that similar information gaps in global genomic surveillance still persist to this day.”

Poor genomic surveillance programs are available in much of the world, while vaccines continue to be largely the preserve of developed countries. However, this disparity will plague the world for decades as the virus continues to breed new variants and creep back into previously vaccinated countries.

Control measures against the new lineages coming up are bound to be knee-jerk responses, falling short of preventing the evolution of such variants. The long phylogenetic trail of B.1.620 itself hints at gradual evolution over time, and perhaps even over vast distances, or due to selection pressures during the course of chronic infection in immunosuppressed people.

The order of mutations leading up to this lineage is also impossible to recover, making it difficult to tell if any mutations here directly promoted the occurrence of other mutations by increasing viral fitness. This is a crucial shortcoming since this lineage has multiple concerning mutations.

Our work highlights that global inequalities, as far as infectious disease monitoring is concerned, have tangible impacts around the world and that until the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is brought to heel everywhere, nowhere is safe for long. Additionally, we highlight the importance of collecting and sharing associated metadata with genome sequences, in particular regarding individual travel histories, as well as collection dates and locations, all of which are important to perform detailed phylogenetic and phylogeographic analysis.”

*Important Notice

medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.



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Mass Covid testing blitz in three London areas amid fears new South African strain cases are tip of iceberg


M

ass testing in three London areas began today as a leading scientist warned that cases of a new mutant Covid-19 strain could be “the tip of the iceberg”.

Although the blitz was sparked by only 11 isolated cases in the communities, Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the Government’s Sage advisory group, said there were likely to be many times more.

“We can multiply that number by quite a high level,” he told Sky News. “So we would expect that we are seeing, if you like, the tip of the iceberg of community transmission.”  

“Do you really need to go for that shopping or have you got enough in?” she asked. “Could you work from home? Could you have that extra conversation with your employer?”

Mobile testing units have been deployed in public spaces, while door-knockers were set to give out home testing kits. Carol Hall, 50, was one of the first to get a test for the South African variant at a centre near her home in West Ealing when it opened at 9am.

Mrs Hall regularly travels into central London for her job as a researcher and scheduler at BBC Parliament. She noticed online that the Sainsbury’s where she shops weekly is on the border of the W13 and W7 postcodes being tested. Mrs Hall said: “If anywhere, that’s where I may have come into contact with the variant.  

“I didn’t get the test because I was frightened. It was the right thing to do as I travel into central London. I don’t know how worried we should be about this South African variant or even if it’s any worse than regular coronavirus.”  

Mrs Hall said the test “was quite easy”. Staff showed her how insert a swab into her throat and nose. She was then given a card with a barcode to register the test online so as to avoid queues of people filling in forms at the centre.

The “surge testing” aims to obtain swabs of 80,000 people in eight postcodes — Hanwell, in Ealing; Tottenham, in Haringey; Mitcham, in Merton; Woking, Surrey; Broxbourne, Hertfordshire; Maidstone, Kent; Walsall in the West Midlands; and Southport, Merseyside.  

The massive effort was mobilised by Public Health England after 11 cases of the variant were identified among victims who have no links to people who have gone abroad.  

The discovery rang alarm bells, suggesting that the mutation has jumped from being found only in travellers and their contacts to spreading below the radar in communities. A total of 105 cases of the new strain have appeared in the UK, most with clear links to travel. Professor Hayward,  of University College London, said the new variant was identified through genetic sequencing, and about five to 10 per cent of all cases are sequenced.

“You can immediately tell from that that we have a big underestimate of the number of cases within this country,” he said. Professor Sir Mark Walport, a Sage member and former chief scientific adviser, said it was unlikely that mass testing would root out every case of the new mutation. “Sadly it’s very unlikely they will be picked up because there are so many cases and Public Health England can’t sequence all of them.”

He said the “inevitability” of new variants springing up made it essential to drive numbers down now by obeying lockdown.  There was evidence that the Covid-19 vaccines worked “slightly less well” against the South African variant, and he believed the Brazil mutation might be even more of a danger.

Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Sage subgroup Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, told Talk Radio: “This is the natural life course of viruses, they do mutate.” He added: “It’s certainly not the zombie apocalypse, not something we should be massively panicky about, just that we should be aware about as things move forward to try to make sure that we keep these new variants under control if they are more transmissible.”

Profeessor Robin Shattock, who is leading Covid-19 vaccine research at Imperial College London, said scientists are working on vaccines which could counter new variants like the one that had emerged in South Africa.  

“At the moment, there is some evidence that some of the vaccines are slightly less effective against the new variant but that does not mean that they are not effective.”

He revealed that work is already under way on an improved version of the vaccine to tackle the mutation.  

Asked if Imperial College have one already, he told Today: “We have one already and we are starting to look at the immune response to that to see whether it makes it more effective against for example the South African strain but also to see whether it can modulate the immune response in somebody who has already had a vaccine to make it more effective as a booster to target these variants as they arrive.”



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Biden to bring back travel bans to stop new strain


U.S. goal to squeeze more Covid shots from Pfizer vials hampered by syringe production

The world’s largest syringe maker does not have the capacity to substantially increase U.S. supplies of specialty syringes needed to squeeze more doses from Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine vials in the coming weeks, an executive said in an interview.

The vaccine made by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, one of two authorized for U.S. emergency use, is shipped in vials initially indicated to hold five doses. Six doses can be drawn with special syringes, called low dead space syringes, which minimize the amount of vaccine left in the syringe after use.

Syringe maker Becton Dickinson has contracted with the U.S. government to provide 286 million syringes for use with Covid-19 vaccines, including around 40 million low dead space syringes, and is fully prepared to deliver on that agreement, said Troy Kirkpatrick, the company’s senior director of public relations.

Low dead space syringes are a niche product and Becton Dickinson had not discussed plans with the U.S. government to substantially boost their output when they began preparing for the vaccine rollout last year, he said.

“We are ready to support the U.S. government but we are trying to make sure everyone understands that those devices are not something we have infinite capacity to produce and bringing up new lines does take time,” Kirkpatrick said.

The United States added 2,173 Covid-19 deaths, 146,379 cases Sunday

Another 2,173 new Covid-19 deaths were recorded across the United States on Sunday, according to NBC News’ tally.

The country also added 146,379 new cases.

While the daily total of new coronavirus cases has fallen 15 percent in the last two weeks, the number of daily deaths is up 12 percent.

Overall, there are more than 25.2 million confirmed Covid-19 cases and more than 420,000 deaths as of Monday morning.

No states set daily records Sunday.

N.Y.C. postponing the opening of Yankees Stadium, Citi Field vaccination mega sites

New York City is postponing the opening of Covid-19 vaccination mega sites at Yankees Stadium and Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, because there isn’t enough supply of doses, city officials told NBC New York’s Andrew Siff.

The city has 20,000 doses left this week, and only 100,000 fresh ones arriving. It needs some 200,000 to open the sites at the baseball stadiums.

Fauci says drop in Covid cases not due to vaccine: ‘We don’t want to get complacent’

Dr. Anthony Fauci on Monday said that a drop in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations in most of the country cannot likely be attributed to vaccines, meaning people should continue to be as cautious as possible.

“I don’t think the dynamics are what we’re seeing is significantly influenced, yet — it will be soon — but yet by vaccine,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on NBC’s “TODAY” show.

The chief medical adviser to the president said the drop was more likely due to a natural plateauing of cases following a spike after the holiday season.

“We don’t want to get complacent and think … ‘Oh, things are going in the right direction, we can pull back a bit, because we do have circulating in the country a variant from the U.K. that’s in over 20 states right now,” Fauci said, pointing out that the variant is more easily transmitted from person to person.

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WHO in Wuhan is probing Covid’s origins as politics hangs over mission

A team of scientists from the World Health Organization is in China investigating mysteries of the pandemic more than a year after it broke out: where the coronavirus came from and how it spilled over into humans.

The long-awaited trip, initially hampered by delays by China, has started what could be a lengthy process of piecing together the virus’s origin to answer key questions about the pathogen and how to prevent similar — and possibly worse — future outbreaks.

But the world will be watching the results of the investigation — and China’s willingness to cooperate will also be the focus of intense interest around the world.

That the trip is happening more than a year after the virus was first identified has stoked concern that the government has not been transparent in its handling of the virus. And political quarrels have emerged, particularly between China and the United States, with the Trump administration assigning blame on China for the pandemic.

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Moderna working to upgrade vaccine, develop booster to target South African variant

Moderna announced Monday that the company is working to upgrade its vaccine to better protect against the new South African strain of the coronavirus.

While the vaccine protects effectively against the new, more easily transmitted U.K. variant, antibody levels are diminished sixfold by the South African variant, said a statement from the company.  

According to Moderna, the vaccine should still be effective against the South African variant, which Dr. Anthony Fauci also said on NBC’s “TODAY” show Monday, but Moderna is nevertheless working to specifically target that variant.

Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said on CNBC on Monday that while the current vaccine should protect against the variant, it is “unknowable what will happen in six months, in 12 months.”

“Immunity may go down over time,” he said, adding that the new work on the vaccine is being done out of an “abundance of caution.” 

“We cannot be behind — we cannot fall behind this virus,” Bancel said. 

U.K. prime minister considers quarantining foreign travelers in hotels

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Monday he was looking to tighten the United Kingdom’s border controls because of the risk of “vaccine-busting” new Covid-19 variants.

“We have to realize there is at least the theoretical risk of a new variant that is a vaccine-busting variant coming in — we’ve got to be able to keep that under control,” he told reporters at a vaccination center.

Johnson added that the government was “actively working on” the option of quarantining international travelers in hotels upon their arrival.

He said the United Kingdom was on target to reach its vaccination targets for vulnerable groups by Feb. 15. So far, it has given 6.3 million people their first vaccine shot. 

Merck discontinues two Covid-19 vaccine candidates

Pharmaceutical giant Merck said Monday that it was discontinuing the development of two Covid-19 vaccine candidates after early clinical trial data showed an “inferior” immune response.

Merck said in a statement posted on its website the decision to scrap the two vaccine candidates followed its review of findings from Phase 1 clinical studies.

The company said the studies showed that both candidates were generally well-tolerated, but the immune responses were inferior to those seen following natural infection and those reported for other Covid-19 vaccines.

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Israel begins vaccinating students ages 16-18

Israel has begun vaccinating students between the ages of 16-18 in a bid to enable them to take their exams.

The announcement from the health ministry that the vaccination program was opening up to some school pupils came last week and one Israeli health plan told NBC News it had started administering doses Sunday.

The development comes as Israel decided to halt passenger flights to and from the country from midnight Monday to Jan. 31.





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Two cases of South Africa Covid strain in the UK are likely ‘the tip of the iceberg’ and restrictions ‘may be too late’


THE two cases of a new Covid strain from South Africa detected in the UK are probably just the “tip of the iceberg”, experts say.

And they fear banning flights from South Africa, and strict quarantining of recent arrivals, may be “too late” to stop the spread of the new variant in the UK.

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THE two cases of the coronavirus strain from South Africa detected in the UK are probably the “tip of the iceberg”

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THE two cases of the coronavirus strain from South Africa detected in the UK are probably the “tip of the iceberg”Credit: AFP or licensors

During yesterday’s Downing Street briefing, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed the new and “highly concerning” strain, called 501.V2, had entered Britain.

He ordered anyone who has visited South Africa in the past two weeks, or been in contact with someone who has, to quarantine immediately.

All flights from South Africa will be stopped, with people who have been in or transited through South Africa in the last 10 days are no longer allowed into the UK, other than British or Irish nationals who must self isolate.

Mr Hancock claimed the new variant is even more contagious than another new strain detected in Kent and London earlier this month, which scientists say is up to 70 per cent more easily spread.

It has led to millions being plunged into Tier 4 at the “eleventh hour” before Christmas, or on Boxing Day, to manage “out of control” cases.

Professor Lawrence Young, a molecular oncologist, University of Warwick, told The Sun: “If this strain is as transmissible as suggested by the data that has come out of South Africa, then just identifying a few cases recently, it’s probably just the tip of the iceberg, I suspect.

“You can identify it in a couple of people… but they’ll be more, for sure. 

“Some cases will be from people spreading it in the UK, and some will be from other introductions from South Africa.”

A new strain which developed in the UK has already plunged millions in Tier 4 rules

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A new strain which developed in the UK has already plunged millions in Tier 4 rulesCredit: AFP or licensors

Prof Young said there is “still a lot we don’t know” about the variant from South Africa, and whether it is more transmissible, or simply been able to grow “in the right place, at the right time”. 

Scientists in South Africa say the variant is still being analysed, but the data are consistent with it spreading more quickly. It accounts for around 90 per cent of new cases.

Prof Young said: “If this has become the dominant infection in South Africa, and it’s been there certainly for a couple of months, and how many have travelled between the UK and South Africa in that time now? Quite a lot I would’ve thought.”

Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said it’s “quite possible” there are undetected cases in the UK, but it will “probably be a number of weeks before we know for certain”.

Speaking of the quarantine measures imposed yesterday, Prof Hunter said: “It might already be too late, but we just don’t know.

“If [these two] are the only infections, yes it might be enough. But if it has already spread elsewhere in the UK and we just don’t know it, the answer is probably no, it won’t be sufficient.”

What is the new strain from South Africa?

The new variant is called 501.V2 and it was announced by the South African government on December 18.

At this stage, its symptoms do not appear to be different to that caused by the original Covid strain.

The most common signs of Covid to look out for are a loss of taste and smell, a persistent cough, and a high temperature.

Scientists are investigating whether the new strain causes more severe disease. But it does seem to be infecting more young people than the original strain, according to South African’s health minister Zweli Mkhize.

Dr Andrew Preston, University of Bath, said: “The ‘South African’ variant is distinct from the UK variant, but both contain an unusually high number of mutations compared to other SARS-CoV-2 lineages.”

“Some of these mutations change the S protein, which is cause for concern,” Dr Preston said.

The spike protein is on the outer surface of the viral particle. It is a focus for coronavirus vaccines, and so if it changes, it could affect how vaccines work.

New strains may make vaccines less effective, because the immune system does not recognise the new variant when it infects the body. This is “highly unlikely” to affect the vaccines that are being rolled out in the UK right now.

The mutations in this virus also mean it’s possible it can reinfect a person who has already recovered from Covid-19.

All of these things are being studied closely.

Mutations are normal in any evolution of a virus over time. Already thousands have been found in SARS-CoV-2 within one year.

What makes the latest two from the UK and South Africa so interesting is the speed at which they became “prominent”, causing lots of cases and suddenly.

The two confirmed cases -in London and the North West – were close contacts of people who had recently travelled to South Africa.

Those travellers would have had Covid-19, possibly without showing symptoms.

It is not clear if this was while they were in the UK, and if they have passed it onto other people who have gone undetected. 

Infectious diseases expert Dr Susan Hopkins told the Downing Street press conference yesterday that health chiefs were “pretty confident” the measures that have been taken will help to control the spread.

TRAVEL ALLOWS STRAINS TO SPREAD

Experts said it’s likely there are more cases of the South Africa variant on the basis that the UK one has already reached several other countries. 

Prof Hunter told The Sun: “It wouldn’t surprise me if it was circulating, in the way the English one is circulating already in many European countries.”

Prof Young said: “This so-called UK variant is now in Belgium, Gibraltar, the Netherlands, Australia, Denmark. It’s all over the place. Today it’s been reported in Israel.

Where the UK strain has been detected

3

Where the UK strain has been detected

“It’s because of travelling. I know it is difficult, but if you don’t restrict travel, and you’re not strict about quarantining people, this is what you end up with.”

The UK has repeatedly seen introductions of other strains from across the world which have quickly become dominant, and caused cases to soar. 

Prof Young said: “One of the things we’ve not been so good at is border control. When you look at countries that have been successful, one of the things they did very early on is shut their borders.

“We were very slow to do that, hence we allowed a lot of introductions of the virus into the UK from overseas.

“That’s what happened in the first wave, and it looks like that also contributed to fuelling this second wave.”

What’s happening in South Africa?

501.V2 accounts for up to 90 percent of South Africa’s new cases.

Daily confirmed infections are reaching 9,500 per day, on average.

It’s the highest it’s been since the peak of the first wave in July, when almost 13,000 cases were being diagnosed a day.

The country saw a dip in cases between September and mid-November before a sudden spike, which the health minister Mr Mkhize said was “being driven by this new variant”.

 

Latest figures suggest the South African strain was behind a record number of people being hospitalised there.

South Africa has recorded the highest number of coronavirus infections on the African continent, approaching the 950,000 mark, with over 25,000 related deaths so far.

A resurgence in positive cases saw the government tighten lockdown restrictions last week, but a lockdown has not been used.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on December 18 it was in touch with the South African researchers who identified the new variant.

“We are working with them with our SARS-CoV-2 Virus evolution working group,” said WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove.

“They are growing the virus in the country and they’re working with researchers to determine any changes in the behaviour of the virus itself in terms of transmission.”

Boris Johnson refuses to rule out new national lockdown as new Covid-19 strains hit hard





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Two UK cases of South Africa Covid strain are likely ‘the tip of the iceberg’& restrictions ‘may be too late’


THE two UK cases of the coronavirus strain from South Africa are likely to be the “tip of the iceberg”, according to experts.

And banning flights from South Africa, and strict quarantining of recent arrivals, may be “too late” to stop the spread of the new variant in the UK.

⚠️ Read our coronavirus live blog for the latest news & updates

A new strain which developed in the UK has already plunged millions in Tier 4 rules

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A new strain which developed in the UK has already plunged millions in Tier 4 rulesCredit: AFP or licensors

During yesterday’s Downing Street briefing, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed the new and “highly concerning” strain, called 501.V2, had entered Britain.

He ordered anyone who has visited South Africa in the past two weeks, or been in contact with someone who has, to quarantine immediately.


Coronavirus Scotland: Almost a fifth of Scots planning to break Covid rules to celebrate Christmas, poll shows


All flights from South Africa will be stopped, with people who have been in or transited through South Africa in the last 10 days are no longer allowed into the UK, other than British or Irish nationals who must self isolate.

Mr Hancock claimed the new variant is even more contagious than another new strain detected in Kent and London earlier this month, which scientists say is up to 70 per cent more easily spread.

It has led to millions being plunged into Tier 4 at the “eleventh hour” before Christmas, or on Boxing Day, to manage “out of control” cases.

Professor Lawrence Young, a molecular oncologist, University of Warwick, told The Sun: “If this strain is as transmissible as suggested by the data that has come out of South Africa, then just identifying a few cases recently, it’s probably just the tip of the iceberg, I suspect.

“You can identify it in a couple of people… but they’ll be more, for sure. 

“Some cases will be from people spreading it in the UK, and some will be from other introductions from South Africa.”

Prof Young said there is “still a lot we don’t know” about the variant from South Africa, and whether it is more transmissible, or simply been able to grow “in the right place, at the right time”. 

Scientists in South Africa say the variant is still being analysed, but the data are consistent with it spreading more quickly. It accounts for around 90 per cent of new cases.

Prof Young said: “If this has become the dominant infection in South Africa, and it’s been there certainly for a couple of months, and how many have travelled between the UK and South Africa in that time now? Quite a lot I would’ve thought.”

Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said it’s “quite possible” there are undetected cases in the UK, but it will “probably be a number of weeks before we know for certain”.

Speaking of the quarantine measures imposed yesterday, Prof Hunter said: “It might already be too late, but we just don’t know.

“If [these two] are the only infections, yes it might be enough. But if it has already spread elsewhere in the UK and we just don’t know it, the answer is probably no, it won’t be sufficient.”

What is the new strain from South Africa?

The new variant is called 501.V2 and it was announced by the South African government on December 18.

At this stage, its symptoms do not appear to be different to that caused by the original Covid strain.

The most common signs of Covid to look out for are a loss of taste and smell, a persistent cough, and a high temperature.

Scientists are investigating whether the new strain causes more severe disease. But it does seem to be infecting more young people than the original strain, according to South African’s health minister Zweli Mkhize.

Dr Andrew Preston, University of Bath, said: “The ‘South African’ variant is distinct from the UK variant, but both contain an unusually high number of mutations compared to other SARS-CoV-2 lineages.”

“Some of these mutations change the S protein, which is cause for concern,” Dr Preston said.

The spike protein is on the outer surface of the viral particle. It is a focus for coronavirus vaccines, and so if it changes, it could affect how vaccines work.

New strains may make vaccines less effective, because the immune system does not recognise the new variant when it infects the body. This is “highly unlikely” to affect the vaccines that are being rolled out in the UK right now.

The mutations in this virus also mean it’s possible it can reinfect a person who has already recovered from Covid-19.

All of these things are being studied closely.

Mutations are normal in any evolution of a virus over time. Already thousands have been found in SARS-CoV-2 within one year.

What makes the latest two from the UK and South Africa so interesting is the speed at which they became “prominent”, causing lots of cases and suddenly.

The two confirmed cases -in London and the North West – were close contacts of people who had recently travelled to South Africa.

Those travellers would have had Covid-19, possibly without showing symptoms.

It is not clear if this was while they were in the UK, and if they have passed it onto other people who have gone undetected. 

Infectious diseases expert Dr Susan Hopkins told the Downing Street press conference yesterday that health chiefs were “pretty confident” the measures that have been taken will help to control the spread.

TRAVEL ALLOWS STRAINS TO SPREAD

Experts said it’s likely there are more cases of the South Africa variant on the basis that the UK one has already reached several other countries. 

Prof Hunter told The Sun: “It wouldn’t surprise me if it was circulating, in the way the English one is circulating already in many European countries.”

Prof Young said: “This so-called UK variant is now in Belgium, Gibraltar, the Netherlands, Australia, Denmark. It’s all over the place. Today it’s been reported in Israel.

Where the UK strain has been detected

3

Where the UK strain has been detected

“It’s because of travelling. I know it is difficult, but if you don’t restrict travel, and you’re not strict about quarantining people, this is what you end up with.”

The UK has repeatedly seen introductions of other strains from across the world which have quickly become dominant, and caused cases to soar. 

Prof Young said: “One of the things we’ve not been so good at is border control. When you look at countries that have been successful, one of the things they did very early on is shut their borders.

“We were very slow to do that, hence we allowed a lot of introductions of the virus into the UK from overseas.

“That’s what happened in the first wave, and it looks like that also contributed to fuelling this second wave.”

What’s happening in South Africa?

501.V2 accounts for up to 90 percent of South Africa’s new cases.

Daily confirmed infections are reaching 9,500 per day, on average.

It’s the highest it’s been since the peak of the first wave in July, when almost 13,000 cases were being diagnosed a day.

The country saw a dip in cases between September and mid-November before a sudden spike, which the health minister Mr Mkhize said was “being driven by this new variant”.

3

 

Latest figures suggest the South African strain was behind a record number of people being hospitalised there.

South Africa has recorded the highest number of coronavirus infections on the African continent, approaching the 950,000 mark, with over 25,000 related deaths so far.

A resurgence in positive cases saw the government tighten lockdown restrictions last week, but a lockdown has not been used.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on December 18 it was in touch with the South African researchers who identified the new variant.

“We are working with them with our SARS-CoV-2 Virus evolution working group,” said WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove.

“They are growing the virus in the country and they’re working with researchers to determine any changes in the behaviour of the virus itself in terms of transmission.”

Boris Johnson refuses to rule out new national lockdown as new Covid-19 strains hit hard


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Family Stranded in South Africa as Travel Ban Over Mutant Virus Strain Kicks In | World News


CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – When businesswoman Marina Wessolowski arrived in Cape Town on Dec. 12 she was looking forward to spending Christmas with family and friends before flying back to Germany early next month.

But the emergence of a new, fast-spreading strain of the coronavirus in South Africa means that she, her husband and two daughters are now uncertain when they will be able to return home.

That’s because a growing number of countries, including Germany, have barred travellers from South Africa while they assess how much danger the new variant poses.

“We found out this morning that we won’t be able to go home, so that is quite a shock to us,” Wessolowski, who runs a cosmetics distribution firm in Berlin, told Reuters on Monday outside her rental flat overlooking the city.

There had been no notification yet from airline Lufthansa on their Jan. 12 return flight to Frankfurt. “We haven’t heard from anybody specifically on what is the next step, so we are waiting,” she said.

At OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on Tuesday, there were fewer passengers than normal, most flying domestic routes.

South Africa’s health department said last week the new virus mutation might be behind a recent surge in infections. The variant is different from one identified in Britain, though both carry mutations that make them more transmissible than previously circulating dominant strains.

Having not seen her 76-year-old mother for a year, Wessolowski – a South African-born German – said their inability to interact more to due COVID-related restrictions has been the hardest part of her visit.

“She has been very lonely … but we are all following the rules and keeping our distance with her. It’s very difficult to see your mom after a year and you can’t hug her,” a tearful Wessolowski added.

South Africa’s tourism department said it had no information on numbers of flights cancelled or rescheduled due to the bans, but that it was working with the foreign ministry and foreign embassies to facilitate contact between foreign citizens in South Africa and their governments.

(Reporting by Wendell Roelf, additional reporting by Emma Rumney and Siphiwe Sibeko in Johannesburg and by Kate Kelland in London; editing by MacDonald Dzirutwe and John Stonestreet)

Copyright 2020 Thomson Reuters.



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WHO says new COVID strain not out of control: Live news | Coronavirus pandemic News


The United Kingdom has been shut off from much of Europe after its closest allies cut transport ties due to fears about a new strain of the coronavirus.

Officials from the World Health Organization say the new variant has been spreading faster in the UK, but it is not out of control and can be curbed just like other known strains.

Meanwhile, Thailand has seen its worst outbreak of the coronavirus yet after hundreds of cases were traced to the country’s biggest seafood market.

Saudi Arabia has suspended all international passenger flights for one week following news of the new strain of the coronavirus, state media reported.

There have been more than 77 million cases of the coronavirus worldwide, with more than 1.69 million deaths.

Here are the latest updates:


UK’s Tesco warns of shortage of some fruit, vegetables if border closure continues

UK supermarket group Tesco has warned that there may be a shortage of some fruit and vegetables later this week if transport ties are not quickly restored with mainland Europe.

Tesco said that “there may be reduced supply on a few fresh items, such as lettuce, cauliflower and citrus fruit later this week, but we don’t expect any problems with availability on these lines today or tomorrow”.

The supermarket group said there was plenty of food for Christmas in stores and would encourage customers to shop as normal.


BioNTech confident COVID-19 vaccine effective against new UK mutation

BioNTech Chief Executive Ugur Sahin has said he was confident a COVID-19 vaccine co-developed by his company would be effective against a new variant of the virus.

He said on Bild TV the company would investigate the mutation in the coming days but that he viewed the matter with “with a degree of soberness”.


Iraq agrees with Pfizer to import 1.5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine

Iraq’s health ministry has said it had agreed with Pfizer to import 1.5 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine, the state news agency has reported.

It said the ministry added that the vaccine, made by Pfizer and BioNTech, would arrive in Iraq early next year.


Canada’s most populous province announces new lockdown

Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, will impose a new lockdown beginning Saturday for its 14 million inhabitants, its premier has announced.

The lockdown will last 28 days in the southern part of the province and 14 days in the less populated north, Premier Doug Ford said at a news conference.

Toronto, the country’s biggest city, has already been in lockdown for nearly a month.


Ireland clearly in the grip of third wave: Health officials

Ireland is clearly in the midst of a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and a rapid acceleration in the growth of cases from a relatively low level just days ago is of very grave concern, senior health officials have said.

“This is clearly a rapidly increasing incidence in what is now a third wave happening much, much sooner after the last one,” Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer, Tony Holohan, told a news conference after reporting a near doubling of the five-day incidence rate of the virus in just four days.

“It’s really important that people stay at home. The situation has changed and is changing very, very quickly. We’re trying to evaluate things such as the potential role of this new variant of the disease.”


Japan doctors’ group, others declare medical emergency

National associations of doctors, nurses and seven other medical groups in Japan have declared a state of medical emergency, urging the government to support the nation’s medical system.

“The spread of the coronavirus infection shows no signs of stopping. Left unchecked, people in Japan will not be able to receive regular medical care, let alone care for COVID-19,” the joint statement said.

The nine groups, which also include national associations of dentists and pharmacists, called on the government to provide proper assistance to front-line medical workers, and on the public to exercise infection prevention measures thoroughly.


European Commission gives final approval to Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine

The European Commission has given approval for the use of the COVID-19 vaccine jointly developed by US company Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, the final step to allowing Europe to start inoculations within a week.


France’s Macron eager to solve border issues in hours, UK PM says

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said French President Emmanuel Macron was eager to resolve border issues within hours.

“It was an excellent conversation with the French president; he stressed he was keen I would say to sort it out in the next few hours if we can,” Johnson said.

“Our teams will be working on it flat out and if we can result then that would be great, but we will do it as fast as we can.”


Pakistan places restrictions on travel from UK

Pakistan’s health ministry has barred all travel to the country from the UK other than for Pakistani citizens who are currently in the UK on temporary visas. Those returning will have to submit to PCR tests before and after their flight to Pakistan.

The restrictions will come into effect at midnight on Wednesday and will remain in effect until midnight on December 30.


New strain is controllable: WHO

A new variant of the novel coronavirus found in the UK has been spreading faster, but it can be curbed just like other known strains, World Health Organization (WHO) officials have said.

“This situation is not out of control but it cannot be left to its own devices,” WHO health emergencies chief Mike Ryan told a news conference, urging countries to implement tried-and-tested health measures.


WHO expects more detail on new strain in coming days, weeks

The WHO has said it expects to get more detail soon on the potential effect of the highly infectious new coronavirus strain.

There is no evidence the mutated variant of the virus increases the severity of the disease, although it is more transmissible, officials said, citing UK analysis.

Maria van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead for COVID-19, said scientists are looking at the body’s antibody response to the virus and she expects results in the coming days and weeks.


New COVID strain: Six key questions answered

The new strain of the coronavirus, referred to by some experts as the B.1.1.7 lineage, is not the first new variant of the pandemic virus to emerge, but is said to be up to 70 percent more transmissible than the previously dominant strain in the UK.

Click here to read the six key questions we have answered.


Which countries have closed borders over new COVID strain?

Click here to view the list of nations closing their borders over the new COVID-19 strain.


EU regulator approves Pfizer-BioNTech COVID vaccine

The EU’s medicines regulator has given its conditional approval for the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer-BioNTech to be used across the bloc, paving the way for inoculations to start within a week.

Following a closed-door expert meeting, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said it was authorising the vaccine jointly produced by the American pharmaceutical giant and its German partner for use in people aged above 16.

Read more here.


Sweden bans travellers from the UK, Denmark

Sweden will stop allowing in foreign travellers from the UK and Denmark, the government has said.

“To minimise the risk of it spreading here, the government has today decided on a ban of entry,” Minister for the Interior Mikael Damberg told a news conference, adding that Swedish citizens were exempt from the ban.

Denmark’s infectious disease authority said last week it had found nine cases of coronavirus infections involving the new strain from November 14 to December 3.


Biden set to receive COVID vaccine as US distributes shots

President-elect Joe Biden will receive his first dose of the coronavirus vaccine on live television as part of a growing effort to convince the American public the inoculations are safe.

Monday’s event will come the same day a second vaccine, produced by Moderna, will start arriving in states, joining Pfizer’s in the nation’s arsenal against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more here.

President-elect Joe Biden is set to receive a COVID vaccination on Monday [File: Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo]

Germany to start first COVID-19 vaccination in elderly homes on December 27

German Health Minister Jens Spahn has welcomed the approval of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech by the European Medicines Agency as a milestone in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

“Vaccination is paving the way for us out of the crisis. And we’re doing everything we can to take this path as quickly as possible,” Spahn said.

He added that authorities would start the first vaccination in elderly homes on December 27.


EU drug regulator: Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine should be on case by case for pregnant women

The European drug regulator has said the use of the COVID-19 vaccine jointly developed by US company Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech on pregnant women should be done on a case by case basis.

European Medicines Agency (EMA) does not have enough data from the companies’ clinical trials on the potential risks to pregnant women, Harald Enzmann, chair of EMA’s Human Medicines Committee (CHMP) said in a briefing.

It can change its recommendation if more information becomes available, he said.


EU to decide on Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine by evening

The European Commission should give its decision by Monday evening on the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, which should pave the wave for vaccinations to begin across the 27 EU countries this year.

After the European Medicines Agency gave its green light to the COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, the EU’s chief executive Ursula von der Leyen said the Commission would act quickly.


Spain, Portugal suspend flights from the UK

Spain will ban all travellers from the UK except Spanish nationals and residents from entering the country from Tuesday, the Spanish government has said.

Controls at the border with Gibraltar, where at least one case of the new COVID-19 variant has already been detected, will be stepped up, the government added in a statement.

It said the entry ban for non-residents had been coordinated with neighbouring Portugal, which announced its decision late on Sunday.

A couple sit on a terrace bar on the empty street of Las Ramblas in downtown Barcelona, Spain [Emilio Morenatti/AP]

Mexico to analyse suspending flights from UK

Mexico will analyse whether to suspend flights from the UK, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said.

Speaking at a regular government news conference, Lopez Obrador said the health ministry would during the course of the day analyse the matter to see whether Mexico should follow other countries in suspending flights from the UK.


Traffic rises at US airports as 3.2 million screened over weekend

The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says it screened more than one million airline passengers for the first time since mid-March when the coronavirus pandemic devastated air travel demand.

TSA said it screened a total of 3.2 million people over the prior three days as holiday air travel began in earnest, including 1.06 million on Sunday.

The total was down 58 percent over the 7.6 million people that were screened over the same period in 2019, the agency said.


UK working with other nations to reduce travel disruption: PM’s spokesman

The UK is working closely with other countries to minimise transport disruption, Prime Minister Johnson’s spokesman has said, after several nations banned travellers and freight from the UK from arriving in their countries.

 


US health official says ‘everything on table’ about possible UK travel ban

US Assistant Health Secretary Brett Giroir has said it was possible the US would ban travel from the UK as a new variant of the deadly coronavirus spreads in the country, but added nothing had been decided yet.

“I think everything is possible. We just need to put everything on the table, have an open scientific discussion and make the best recommendation,” he said in an interview on CNN, adding the White House coronavirus task force will meet later on Monday.


Hello, this is Mersiha Gadzo in Toronto, Canada taking over the live updates from my colleague Linah Alsaafin.


Australia confirms two cases of new coronavirus strain

Australia confirmed it has detected two cases of the new coronavirus strain that has forced the UK to reverse plans to ease curbs over Christmas, the first confirmed cases of the strain in the Asia-Pacific region.

Australia’s most populous state on Sunday reported six new cases of the novel coronavirus in people returning from overseas and in quarantine, and authorities said among them were two cases of the fast-spreading new strain.

However, New South Wales officials stressed that no people infected with the new strain were believed to be circulating in the community.

“We’ve had a couple of UK returned travellers with the particular mutations,” NSW chief health officer Kerry Chant told reporters.

Russia reports record jump in new virus cases

Gravediggers wearing protective suits carry the coffin of a COVID-19 victim in the section of a cemetery reserved for coronavirus victims in Kolpino, outside St Petersburg, Russia, Tuesday, December 15, 2020 [Dmitri Lovetsky/AP Photo]

Russia has reported a new record increase in coronavirus infections, as some experts said the pandemic had hit the country harder than government statistics suggest.

Health officials reported 493 new virus deaths and 29,350 cases, bringing total infections to 2,877,727 – the fourth highest in the world.

Total fatalities stood at 51, 351.

Moscow and the second city of Saint Petersburg were the hardest hit, recording 7,797 and 3,752 new cases.


Myanmar’s biggest city closes parks to keep lid on coronavirus

Myanmar has closed off public gardens, parks and a lake in its biggest city Yangon, hoping to prevent a spike in coronavirus cases during year-end holidays.

City officials trying to protect recent gains in containing COVID-19 infections put up barricades, signs and cordons around the Mahabandula park and along the banks of the Inya lake, among other popular sites known for drawing holiday crowds.

The closures come amid fears that fatigue and frustration from the coronavirus crisis and containment measures could see a larger turnout than usual this year.

“We have seen some people do some extreme celebrations at New Year. And we think the crowd would get bigger for celebrations this year,” city administrator Myo Kyi said.

EU agreed to pay 15.5 euros per dose for Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine

The European Union has agreed to pay 15.5 euros ($18.90) per dose for the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, an internal EU document reviewed by Reuters showed.

The price, which is confidential and was negotiated for a total of 300 million doses, is slightly lower than the $19.50 per shot the United States agreed to pay for the first shipment of 100 million doses of the same vaccine, in line with what Reuters reported in November.

The EU document dated November 18 was circulated internally after the EU announced its supply deal with Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech on November 11

India suspends flights from UK until December 31

India has said it was joining other countries in temporarily suspending all flights from the UK after the emergence of a new and more infectious strain of coronavirus there.

“Considering the prevailing situation in UK. Govt. of India has decided that all flights originating from UK to India to be suspended till 31st December 2020,” the aviation ministry said in a tweet.

It said the suspension would come into effect from 11:59pm (06:29 GMT) on Tuesday.

It added that in a “measure of abundant precaution”, passengers arriving from Britain on transit flights would be subject to a mandatory RT-PCR test on arrival.

Interpol expects ‘dramatic’ jump in crime over vaccine shipments

Interpol chief Juergen Stock has predicted a sharp rise in crimes with robbers seeking to get their hands on precious vaccines aimed at stopping the coronavirus pandemic.

“With vaccines rolling out, crime will increase dramatically,” Stock told business weekly WirtschaftsWoche. “We will see thefts and warehouse break-ins and attacks on vaccine shipments.”

France to start COVID-19 vaccinations next week

France will start its COVID-19 vaccination programme on Sunday, Health Minister Olivier Veran wrote on his Twitter feed.

Veran added that the French vaccination programme would start off with the most vulnerable members of the population, such as the elderly.

Europe’s medicines regulator will on Monday assess the COVID-19 vaccine jointly developed by US company Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, with a green light to put Europe on course to start inoculations within a week.

US President-elect Biden to receive vaccine

President-elect Joe Biden walks onstage to speak at a drive-in rally for Georgia Democratic candidates for US Senate Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff [File: Patrick Semansky/AP Photo]

President-elect Joe Biden will receive his first dose of the coronavirus vaccine on live television as part of a growing effort to convince the American public the inoculations are safe.

Monday’s event will come the same day that a second vaccine, produced by Moderna, will start arriving in states, joining Pfizer’s in the nation’s arsenal against the COVID-19 pandemic, which has now killed more than 317,000 people in the United States and upended life around the globe.

“I don’t want to get ahead of the line, but I want to make sure we demonstrate to the American people that it is safe to take,” Biden has said of his decision.

Philippines to get 30 million doses of Novavax COVID-19 vaccine

The Philippines expects to receive 30 million doses of Novavax Inc’s COVID-19 vaccine by July next year, boosting the country’s effort to secure supplies to inoculate more than 100 million people.

Despite consultations with numerous vaccine makers, the Philippines has so far signed only one supply deal, with the help of its private sector, to acquire 2.6 million shots of a vaccine developed by AstraZeneca.

It plans to buy 25 million doses of a vaccine from China’s Sinovac Biotech for delivery by March and aims to secure between four and 25 million doses of vaccines from Moderna and Arcturus Therapeutics Holdings Inc.

Countries that have blocked travel from UK

The list of countries stopping flights from the UK continued to grow as alarmed officials reacted to a new, highly contagious variant of the coronavirus that has sent London and southeastern England into lockdown.

Here are the countries that have banned flights from the UK:

From Europe: France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Denmark, Poland, Spain, Portugal.

From Latin America: El Salvador, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Peru.

From the Middle East: Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Kuwait, Morocco.

From North America: Canada.

New COVID strain in the UK: What we know in 500 words

In recent days, concerns have grown over a new strain identified in the UK.

The new variant, which has been named VUI-202012/01 (the first Variant Under Investigation in December 2020), is thought to have first occurred in mid-September in the country’s southeast, in the capital London or the county of Kent.

Vaccines should still be effective against it and the new strain is not believed to be any more deadly, but people are increasingly worried because this mutation appears to be 70 percent more infectious.

Read more here.

Thousands tested in Thailand after virus outbreak in seafood market

A medical worker performs a nose swab on a migrant worker at a seafood market, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Samut Sakhon province, in Thailand [Panumas Sanguanwong/Reuters]

Thailand has confirmed 382 new coronavirus infections with the majority of cases linked to a seafood centre outbreak in a province near the capital, the health ministry said.

Tens of thousands of people are being tested after hundreds of cases linked to the Mahachai seafood market in Thailand’s worst outbreak yet.

The new cases in the southwest province of Samut Sakhon include 360 migrant workers, most of them from neighbouring Myanmar.

Seoul to ban gatherings of five people or more

South Korea’s capital Seoul and surrounding areas will ban most gatherings of five people or more later this week in an attempt to reduce coronavirus cases over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

South Korea recorded its highest daily death toll from the coronavirus, health authorities said on Monday, as a surge in infections strained the health system and prompted police raids on venues suspected of violating physical distancing rules

COVID-19 patient who fled from Hong Kong hospital is caught

A 63-year-old coronavirus patient who ran away from Hong Kong’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital isolation ward on December 18 has been found and returned by police.

The patient was escorted back to the hospital and is reportedly in a stable condition.

Hospital wards have enhanced patient management and surveillance, enhancing security on the floors with isolation wards and deploying extra patrols.

Saudi Arabia halts all international flights

A traveller wearing a protective face mask wheels his bags at Riyadh International Airport, after Saudi Arabia reopened domestic flights, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 31, 2020 [File: Ahmed Yosri/Reuters]

Saudi Arabia said it was halting all flights and suspending entry through its land and seaports for at least a week, with the option to extend for a further week.

Passengers who arrived in Saudi Arabia from Europe – or any country where the new strain was detected – starting December 8 will be required to self-quarantine for two weeks and undergo testing.

Foreign flights currently inside the kingdom are allowed to depart.





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