US scientist assessing new virus variant risk

WASHINGTON — Moncef Slaoui, the chief science adviser for the U.S. government’s COVID-19 vaccine effort, said scientists are still working to confirm whether the virus strain in the United Kingdom spreads more easily.

Although that could be why it has become more prevalent in the U.K., Slaoui said in a briefing with reporters Monday that another possible explanation is that “seeding happened in the shadows” before scientists started looking for it.

Animal studies are needed to confirm that the strain spreads more easily. Slaoui said that process takes several weeks.

In the meantime, he said there is no evidence the variant causes more severe disease or is more deadly. He also said the expectation is that vaccines would still be effective against the virus strain, but that scientists are working to confirm that.



A new COVID-19 relief bill shaping up in Congress includes individual payments reaching $600 for most Americans and an extra $300 a week in unemployment benefits. Votes on the bill in the House and Senate are expected Monday. Among those getting help are hard-hit businesses, schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction. Also, 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.


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TORONTO — Ontario is announcing a province-wide lockdown because of a second wave of COVID-19 in Canada’s most populous province.

The lockdown will be put in place for southern Ontario from Dec. 26 until Jan.23, but will lift for northern Ontario on Jan. 9.

Ontario has had seven straight days of more than 2,000 cases a day. Modeling shows that could more than double in January. Health officials earlier say a four to six week hard lockdown could significantly stop the spread of COVID-19.


LOS ANGELES — California Gov. Gavin Newsom is back in a precautionary coronavirus quarantine for the second time in two months as surging COVID-19 cases swamp the state’s hospitals and strain medical staffing.

The governor’s office says Newsom will quarantine for 10 days after one of his staffers tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday afternoon.

Newsom was tested and his result came back negative, as did the tests of other staffers who were in contact.

Last month, members of the governor’s family were exposed to someone who tested positive. Newsom, his wife and four children tested negative at that time.

As of Sunday, more than 16,840 people were hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19 infections — more than double the previous peak reached in July — and a state model that uses current data to forecast future trends shows the number could reach 75,000 by mid-January.


MADRID — Spain’s health ministry reported slightly more than 22,000 officially recorded new cases of COVID-19 over the weekend and 334 deaths amid a continuing rise in daily infection numbers.

The ministry said Monday that Spain’s pandemic tally has now reached 1.82 million cases and 49,260 fatalities.

While infection numbers declined substantially in late November in Spain, there has seen a steady increase in December. Officials say this is most likely due to the increase in social gatherings and people mixing in the street and in stores in the run-up to Christmas.

The ministry said the infection rate per 100,000 inhabitants was at 224 Monday compared to 214 on Friday. This is still way down from a high of 529 cases on Nov. 9.

The average occupancy rate of ICU beds by COVID-19 patients remained at 20%.


BERLIN — German officials say they expect the country to soon receive more than 2 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine that got the green light from regulators on Monday.

Authorities in Berlin state said they have been informed by Health Minister Jens Spahn that the first shipment of 151,125 doses will be delivered to Germany on Dec. 26.

Three further batches of almost 1.9 million doses combined will arrive on Dec. 28, Dec. 30, and in the first week of January.

Germany, a country of 83 million inhabitants, hopes to begin vaccinating nursing home residents on Dec. 27, followed by others at high risk of serious infection or working in fields where they might expose vulnerable people.


LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson says British and French officials are working “to unblock the flow of trade as fast as possible” after France barred U.K. trucks over concerns about a new variant of the coronavirus.

Dozens of countries have barred flights from the U.K. because of the new variant, which scientists believe is more easily transmitted. Southern England, where the new strain is most widespread, has been placed under strict lockdown measures.

France announced Sunday it was closing its borders to trucks from Britain for at least 48 hours from Sunday night. That left hundreds of vehicles stranded outside the Channel Tunnel port of Dover.

Johnson said he had spoken to French President Emmanuel Macron, and Macron “stressed he was keen to sort it out in the next few hours if we can.”

He stressed that the ban did not apply to freight moving in unaccompanied containers, and “the vast majority of food, medicines and other supplies are coming and going as normal.”


STOCKHOLM — Sweden says it is banning all incoming travel from Britain and Denmark effective midnight Monday to curb any risk of the new COVID-19 virus variant from entering the country.

Swedish Interior Minister said at press conference on Monday that in the case of Britain “the ban means that all people traveling from the UK will be rejected if they try to travel into Sweden.” Swedish citizens would be exempt and wouldn’t be affected.

It wasn’t immediately clear how long the entry ban would be valid.

The Swedish government also said it also had imposed a 48-hour ban for all incoming flights from Britain, starting Monday afternoon and lasting until 1500GMT Wednesday. Cargo flights and ambulance flights are excluded.


NEW YORK — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he has asked airlines flying into his state from the United Kingdom to make all passengers take a coronavirus test before they get on the plane.

The Democrat said at least one airline, British Airways, has agreed to comply. He’s awaiting an answer from others, including Delta and Virgin Atlantic.

Cuomo has been calling on the U.S. government to temporarily halt flights from the U.K. because of the emergence of a new strain of the virus circulating in that country.


ROME — Italy registered 10,872 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the 24-hour period ending Monday afternoon.

But as usually happens on weekends, relatively few swab tests were conducted, fewer than 90,000 – that’s half the amount done just three days earlier.

Since Sunday, 161 more coronavirus patients were admitted to intensive care wards, with more than 2,700 currently occupying ICU beds in the country that is grappling with a second surge of COVID-19 after a dramatic drop over the summer in daily caseloads.

Italy on Monday added 415 deaths to what is Europe’s highest national toll of pandemic dead, raising to 69,214 the known total to date of COVID-19 deaths.


MULTAN, Pakistan — Pakistani authorities have imposed a temporary ban on travelers arriving from the U.K. to avoid the spread of new coronavirus.

The government said on Monday that the ban would go into effect starting Tuesday and would last till Dec. 29. Pakistani nationals who traveled to Britain will be allowed to return home provided their COVID-19 tests are negative.

The latest move by Pakistan comes after the discovery of a new strain of coronavirus in Britain.

Pakistan reported 1,792 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases and 62 deaths in the past 24 hours. There have been 9,392 deaths among 458,968 COVID-19 cases since February when the first infection was detected in the country.


MADRID — The Spanish government says Spain will suspend flights from Britain as of Tuesday except for those carrying Spanish citizens or people with Spanish residence.

The government said Monday that it had taken the decision in conjunction with Portugal and following consultation with the European Union.

Up to now, Spain had declined to follow other European countries decision to suspend flights, saying it was seeking a common EU stance.

Spain said it would also be stepping up border controls with Gibraltar, the British colony on Spain’s southwestern coast.


JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the country has further tightened restrictions on incoming air travel in response to the new strain of the coronavirus.

Netanyahu said Monday that Israel will not allow foreign nationals to enter the country, and any Israelis who return from abroad, starting Wednesday, will go into quarantine at state-designated hotels. Currently, returning Israelis are allowed to quarantine at home. The restrictions will remain in effect for 10 days.

Israel has already barred most foreign visitors since the start of the pandemic, but made exceptions for certain groups like religious seminary students. Israeli officials say almost all loopholes will now be closed.

On Sunday, Netanyahu also said Israel was banning incoming flights from the U.K., Denmark and South Africa — saying those are the countries where the new mutation of the coronavirus had been detected. He said the ban could be extended to other countries if the strain spreads.


TEHRAN, Iran — Iran has suspended flights to the United Kingdom for two weeks over fears of a fast-spreading new variant of the coronavirus.

In response to a request from Iranian health authorities, the transport ministry decided on Monday to halt round-trip flights to Britain, which is grappling with an outbreak of what officials have described as a more contagious strain of the virus.

Plane tickets were abruptly canceled and all Iranian planes were ordered to return to Iran from the U.K. without passengers.

Iran has struggled to contain the worst outbreak in the Middle East, which has killed over 53,800 people.

The new strains in the U.K. and South Africa appear to be more infectious than the original virus.


HOUGHTON LAKE, Mich. — A popular northern Michigan festival is switching to a February weekend because of coronavirus restrictions.

Tip-Up Town USA in Houghton Lake promotes itself as Michigan’s longest-running winter festival, with a polar bear dip, snowmobile drag racing, ice fishing contest and more in Roscommon County. The local Chamber of Commerce said it began in 1950.

WWTV–WWUP-TV reported that the Jan. 16-17 dates have been switched to Feb. 27-28 because of restrictions on attendance at outdoor events. Outdoor events are limited to 25 people through Jan. 15.

Organizers said if there are conflicts with the new dates, Tip-Up Town probably will be canceled.


WOONSOCKET, R.I. — CVS Health has expanded its COVID-19 vaccination program for residents and staff of long-term care facilities into 12 states.

The drugstore chain said Monday it will add another 36 states on Dec. 28 and start vaccinations in Puerto Rico on Jan. 4.

Vaccinations began around the country last week, mostly for health care workers. CVS Health and rival Walgreens also started providing shots at some long-term care locations in Connecticut and Ohio.

Both companies said they would expand their programs in 12 states starting this week. CVS Health said Monday that those states include Florida, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon and Vermont.

Woonsocket, Rhode Island-based CVS Health plans to make three visits to each site in order to give residents and staff their initial shoot and then a booster. The company said it expects that most residents will be fully vaccinated three to four weeks after the initial visit, and it will complete its program in about three months.


CAIRO — Sudan on Monday banned travelers arriving from the U.K., The Netherlands and South Africa from entering the county amid concerns over new coronavirus variants detected in those countries.

The civil aviation authority said the ban would go into effect starting from Wednesday and would last till January 5.

Sudan has reported more than 22,963 confirmed cases, including 1,450 deaths, as of Friday. The actual COVID-19 tally, however, is believed to be higher given the country’s limited testing.

The decision by Sudanese authorities followed similar measures by several western countries that have imposed temporary bans on certain travel from the United Kingdom, following the discovery of a new strain of coronavirus.

The new strains in the U.K. and South Africa appear to be more infectious than the original virus.


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