The novel coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 97 million people around the world, with over 2 million fatalities. Here are updates for January 21:

City workers wearing protective equipment collect a ballot for the Portuguese presidential election from a voter in quarantine due to the coronavirus disease in Carcavelos, Portugal, January 20, 2021.
City workers wearing protective equipment collect a ballot for the Portuguese presidential election from a voter in quarantine due to the coronavirus disease in Carcavelos, Portugal, January 20, 2021. (Reuters)

Thursday, January 21, 2021:

Portugal shuts schools as cases, deaths soar

Portugal's schools and universities will close doors for at least 15 days, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said as authorities scrambled to tackle the country's worst outbreak since the pandemic started.

"Despite the extraordinary effort of schools ... in the face of this new variant and the velocity of its transmission, we must exercise precaution and interrupt all school activities for the next 15 days," Costa said.

Costa was referring to the more contagious variant of the coronavirus discovered in Britain, which was spreading rapidly across Portugal. 

Portugal daily death toll from the coronavirus reached a record high of 221 on Thursday, up from 219 reported a day before, bringing the total to 9,686 fatalities since the start of the pandemic, health authority DGS said.

The country of 10 million people, where hospitals are struggling to cope with a surge in infections and authorities are mulling tougher lockdown measures, also reported 13,544 infections over the last 24 hours, below Wednesday's record of 14,647.

First vaccines under COVAX could reach Ukraine in February

The first batches of vaccine under the COVAX scheme could arrive in Ukraine in the first half on February, Ukraine-24 television channel quoted a senior Ukrainian lawmaker as saying.

Mykhailo Radutskyi said the batch could total 210,000 doses, which could be of the Moderna, Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccines.

Ukraine, which registered around 1.2 million coronavirus cases and 21,499 deaths, has already agreed to buy some vaccines from China. 

Turkey reports over 6,200 new cases

Turkey reported over 6,200 new cases, according to Health Ministry data.

A total of 6,289 cases, including 743 symptomatic patients, were confirmed across the country, the data showed.

Turkey's overall case tally is over 2.41 million, while the nationwide death toll has reached 24,640, with 153 fatalities over the past day.

As many as 6,113 more patients in the country won the battle against the virus, bringing the total number of recoveries to over 2.29 million.

More than 28 million coronavirus tests have been done in Turkey to date, with 165,109 done since Wednesday.

The latest figures show that the number of patients in critical condition dropped to 2,074.

Last week, Turkey began a mass vaccination campaign, starting with healthcare workers along with top officials to encourage public confidence in the vaccines.

So far, over 1.1 million people in the country have received their first doses of CoronaVac, according to the Health Ministry.

Since last month, Turkey has been imposing curfews as part of its efforts to curb the virus' spread.

Kenya detects South African strain

Kenya's health ministry says two men have tested positive for a strain first detected in South Africa, the first such cases detected in the East African country.

Both cases, which were asymptomatic, were detected in Kenya's coastal county of Kilifi, and involved foreigners who had since returned home, the ministry's director-general said Wednesday.

No information was provided about the nationalities of the men who tested positive for the variant.

According to official figures, Kenya has recorded 99,630 cases, of which 1,739 have been fatal, since the outset of the pandemic.

The outbreak surged in October, with the average percentage of positive cases returned in a week soaring to above 16 percent of all tests. That number dropped below three percent last week.

IOC president Bach says Tokyo Olympics to be held as scheduled

IOC president Thomas Bach said that the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games will be held as scheduled, in an interview with Kyodo News.

He said there was "no Plan B".

Despite a surge in coronavirus cases leading to much of Japan currently being under severe restrictions, organisers have remained adamant that the Olympics can go ahead. 

Mongolian PM submits resignation after virus protests

Mongolia's Prime Minister Khuresukh Ukhnaa has submitted his resignation to parliament after protests in the capital Ulaanbaatar about the government's handling of the pandemic, the state news agency Montsame reported.

The protests erupted on Wednesday in response to allegations that the government had mishandled the relocation of a patient and her newborn baby, Montsame said.

After earning praise for its handling of the coronavirus in the early stages, Mongolia has recently been battling an outbreak caused by an infected driver entering from Russia.

Lebanon extends lockdown into February as numbers rise

Authorities in Lebanon extended a nationwide lockdown by a week, to February 8, amid a steep rise in deaths and infections that has overwhelmed the health care system.

Despite increasing the number of hospital beds in the country of nearly 6 million, doctors and nurses have struggled to keep pace with patients flooding their facilities. Intensive care unit bed occupancy has been rising, hitting 91 percent late Wednesday, according to the World Health Organization.

Registered daily infections have hovered around 5,000 since the holiday season, up from nearly 1,000 in November.

The overall death toll has surpassed 2,000, with new fatalities numbering between 40 and 60 deaths a day in the past week.

Doctors say with increased testing, the number of confirmed infections has also increased, recording a positivity rate of over 20 percent for every 100 tests. Nurses and doctors are overwhelmed, and more than 2,300 health care workers have been infected since February.

Sierra Leone curbs travel, imposes curfew as cases spike

Sierra Leone will impose a nationwide curfew and restrict travel in and out of the capital Freetown, the government announced, as the country battles a second wave of infections.

The West African state's coronavirus response unit said there had been an "exponential rise in cases" after the holiday season.

From Monday, people required to leave Freetown and the surrounding area must present a recent negative Covid-19 test, a statement said, with their movements "regulated" by an electronic pass system.

A night curfew will also apply nationwide between 10 pm and 5 am, among other anti-virus measures.

Sierra Leone boasts huge mineral and diamond deposits but is one of the world's poorest nations, still recovering from decades of war and disease.

The country of some 7.5 million people was hard hit by the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic in West Africa during which nearly 4,000 people died in Sierra Leone.

It has officially recorded 3,081 coronavirus cases, with 77 deaths.

Dutch parliament backs night-time curfew plan to curb spread

The Netherlands will impose its first night-time curfew since World War II from Saturday onward in a bid to stop the spread of new mutations after a majority of lawmakers supported the emergency measure during a debate.

Argentine President Alberto Fernandez receives Sputnik V

Argentine President Alberto Fernandez has been vaccinated using the Sputnik V vaccine, an official confirmed.

Fernandez, 61, was vaccinated a day after Argentina's health regulator approved the Russian-made vaccine for use among over 60s. 

Biden launches virus initiatives on first full day in White House

President Joe Biden launched initiatives to rein in the raging pandemic, tackling his top priority on his first full day in the White House as he tries to turn the page on Donald Trump's tumultuous leadership.

His administration plans a coordinated federal coronavirus response aimed at restoring trust in the government and focused on boosting vaccines, increasing testing, reopening schools and addressing inequalities thrown up by the disease.

Later on Thursday, Biden will sign a series of executive orders related to the pandemic, including requiring mask-wearing in airports and on certain public transportation, including many trains, airplanes and intercity buses, officials said.

He will also deliver public remarks on his Covid-19 efforts.

Biden has pledged to provide 100 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine during his first 100 days in office.

His plan aims to increase vaccinations by opening up eligibility for more people such as teachers and grocery clerks.

Ireland to vaccinate all citizens by September

Ireland plans to vaccinate every citizen in the nation against the coronavirus by September, health minister Stephen Donnelly said.

He said the plan is "indicative" and "based on assumptions" about the future delivery of vaccines, some of which have yet to be approved by EU regulators.

Ireland does not yet publish daily figures outlining delivery of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines currently approved for use in the general population.

However Donnelly said 94,000 had received the first dose of a vaccine by Sunday and plans are "on course" to deliver 140,000 by the end of this week.

Ireland has suffered 2,768 deaths according to latest official figures.

After navigating two previous waves of the virus with low death and case figures, the nation now has the highest per capita rate of infection in the world, according to Oxford University data.

The country of five million is currently in the midst of a third lockdown, with non-essential shops, pubs, restaurants and schools shut for at least the month of January.

Major fire at India vaccine plant but drug production goes on

Fire tore through part of the world's biggest vaccine production hub in western India, but the company insisted that the production of drugs to counter the coronavirus pandemic was not affected.

Serum Institute of India is producing millions of doses of the Covishield coronavirus vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

TV channels showed thick clouds of grey smoke billowing from the sprawling site in Pune.

The complex where the fire broke out is a few minutes' drive from the facility where coronavirus vaccines are produced, reports said.

Up to nine buildings are under construction at the complex to enhance Serum's manufacturing capability, NDTV reported.

Algarve Tour postponed as Portugal battles surge

Spiralling infection rates in Portugal have forced the postponement of next month's five-day Volta ao Algarve UCI ProSeries cycling race.

The event, scheduled to start on February 17 has been provisionally moved to May 5-9, organisers said.

Daily coronavirus cases in Portugal rose 40 percent on Wednesday from the previous day to a record 14,647, with the national health system (SNS) on the verge of collapse and the government pondering tougher lockdown measures to tackle the surge.

The Algarve Tour, which had attracted 14 World Tour teams, is the latest race to be postponed as the professional cycling calendar faces disruption.

The Tour Down Under, Vuelta a San Juan, Challenge Mallorca, Herald Sun Tour, Tour Colombia and Tour of Antalya have already been cancelled or postponed. 

Hungary gives preliminary approval for AstraZeneca and Sputnik V

Hungary's drug regulator has given preliminary approval for the use of the coronavirus vaccine made by AstraZeneca and also Russia's Sputnik V vaccine, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief of staff said, confirming media reports.

Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto was travelling to Moscow for talks about the coronavirus vaccine later on Thursday, Gergely Gulyas said.

Pakistan: China to gift half million doses of Sinopharm vaccine

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that China has agreed to provide half a million doses of the Chinese Sinopharm free of cost to Pakistan by January 31.

"They have said send your aircraft and airlift this vaccine immediately. So this is a happy bit of news for us, and we will hopefully be successful in protecting ourselves using this vaccine," Qureshi said at a press conference in Islamabad.

Pakistani regulators approved the Sinopharm vaccine for emergency use o n Monday, two days after AstraZeneca’s vaccine developed with Oxford University was also approved.

Pakistan is also nearing completion of a phase three trial of another Chinese vaccine from Cansino Biologics Inc. Some 17,500 people had enrolled in the trial so far, and initial results would be available in the beginning of February, health minister Faisal Sultan said at a press conference.

Sweden registers 4,985 new cases, 124 deaths

Sweden, which has spurned a lockdown throughout the pandemic, registered 4,985 new cases, Health Agency statistics showed.

The country of 10 million inhabitants registered 124 new deaths, taking the total to 10,921. The deaths registered have occurred over several days and weeks.

Sweden's death rate per capita is several times higher than that of its Nordic neighbours, but lower than several European countries that opted for lockdowns.

US intends to join COVAX and remain WHO member - Fauci

The United States under President Joe Biden intends to join the COVAX vaccine facility that aims to deliver vaccines to poor countries, his chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci told the World Health Organization (WHO).

"President Biden will issue a directive later today which will include the intent of the United States to join COVAX and support the ACT-Accelerator to advance multilateral efforts for Covid-19 vaccine, therapeutic, and diagnostic distribution, equitable access, and research and development," Fauci told the WHO executive board. 

The United States will remain a member of the WHO, he said. Biden's predecessor Donald Trump halted funding to the WHO, where the United States is the largest donor, and announced a process to withdraw from the agency in July 2021.

Moscow to relax some restrictions as daily Russian Covid-19 cases ease

Moscow will relax some restrictions, including fully reopening colleges and specialist education institutions, the mayor of the Russian capital said on Thursday.

The number of daily new cases has started to fall in Russia, which launched a voluntary vaccination programme with the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine last month. It has resisted imposing a strict new lockdown, relying instead on targeted measures.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said new daily cases were considerably lower than at the end of December and that a tangible drop in daily hospital admissions to 1,200-1,300 people from 1,500-1,800 had made him cautiously optimistic.

"Vaccination rates have significantly increased. Over 220,000 Muscovites have already received reliable protection from the virus," Sobyanin wrote on his website.

"In this situation, we can allow ourselves to considerably soften existing restrictions."

State-run universities will continue to operate with distanced learning, but colleges and specialist institutions can reopen fully from Friday, Sobyanin said.

Dubai cancels non-essential surgery, live entertainment 

Dubai has suspended non-essential surgery for a month and live entertainment in hotels and restaurants until further notice as coronavirus infections surge in the Middle East trade hub.

The decision to postpone certain surgeries, which takes effect midnight on Thursday and could be extended, was aimed at ensuring the preparedness of health facilities to manage cases, Dubai's health regulator said in a circular published on Wednesday.

Dubai's tourism department issued a circular, seen by Reuters, suspending entertainment in hotels and restaurants after recording an increase in violations of coronavirus precautions.

Daily cases in the United Arab Emirates hit a record 3,506 on Wednesday, the highest in the Gulf Arab region where daily tallies in each of the other five states have fallen below 500.

The UAE does not give a breakdown of infections in each emirate.

India's vaccine diplomacy in south Asia pushes back against China

India will give millions of doses of vaccine to South Asian countries in the next few weeks, government sources said on Thursday, drawing praise from its neighbours and pushing back against China's dominating presence in the region.

Free shipments of AstraZeneca's vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, the world's biggest producer of vaccines, have begun arriving in the Maldives, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Myanmar and the Seychelles are next in line to get free consignments as India uses its strength as one of the world's biggest makers of generic drugs to build friendships.

"The government of India has shown goodwill by providing the vaccine in grant. This is at the people’s level, it is the public who are suffering the most" said Nepal's Minister for Health and Population Hridayesh Tripathi.

The gesture comes at a time that India's ties with Nepal have been strained by a territorial dispute and Indian concern over China's expanding political and economic influence in the Himalayan nation sandwiched between the Asian giants.

Spain pushes for vaccine certificates to ease travel resumption

Spain is pushing the European Union and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development for the creation of a vaccine certification that would ease travel, Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez said.

"Vaccine certification is something we are going towards inevitably," Gonzalez told RNE radio station. "It will be a very important element to guarantee a safe return to mobility."

The issuance of such a document though should be coordinated at the European or even global level, she said, adding that a vaccine certificate would allow people to travel, like PCR tests do now.

Spain, which depends heavily on the tourism industry, is one of the countries that suffered the most from the restrictions to travel related to the pandemic. 

COVAX vaccine scheme says will supply 1.8 billion doses to poor in 2021

The COVAX vaccine sharing platform designed to give equitable access to Covid-19 shots said on Thursday it aimed to deliver 1.8 billion doses to poorer countries in 2021, and hoped to fulfil deals for wealthier nations in the second half of the year.

COVAX, which is co-led by the GAVI vaccine alliance, the World Health Organization and others, said the 1.8 billion doses would be supplied via an advance market commitment to 92 eligible countries and would correspond to approximately 27% coverage of populations in those countries.

"Our forecasting indicates that we should fulfil the requests for vaccine placed by self-financing participants in the second half of 2021," GAVI said in an updated forecast statement for COVAX. 

Indonesia reports daily record 346 new deaths

Indonesia reported a new daily record of 346 new deaths on Thursday, taking its total to 27,203 since the virus was first detected last year.

Indonesia's Covid-19 task force also reported 11,703 new coronavirus cases, raising total infections to 951,651, among the highest totals in Asia.

Welsh AstraZeneca vaccine facilities not disrupted by flooding, Wockhardt UK says

The manufacture of AstraZeneca and Oxford's vaccine has not been disrupted by flooding near a Welsh factory involved in the supply chain, manufacturing partner Wockhardt said, adding the site was operating as normal.

"Last night at approximately 1600 (GMT) hours, Wockhardt UK experienced mild flooding, resulting in excess water surrounding part of the buildings across site," the company said in a statement.

"All necessary precautions were taken meaning no disruption to manufacturing or inlet of water into buildings. The site is now secure and free from any further flood damage and operating as normal."

France will need new lockdown if curfew doesn't work -epidemiologist

France will probably need a third national lockdown if the current 6 pm curfew fails to rein in the spread of the novel coronavirus, a member of the French national vaccine committee told BFM TV, before saying that it could be limited to the most vulnerable.

"If the number of cases keep rising, we shall have to resort to a lockdown again," epidemiologist Odile Launay said. "We should seriously consider a lockdown limited to vulnerable people." 

Russia reports 21,887 new cases, 612 deaths

Russia on Thursday reported 21,887 new cases in the last 24 hours, including 3,458 in Moscow, pushing the national tally to 3,655,839, according to the country's crisis response centre.

The centre said 612 people died overnight, taking the official death toll to 67,832. 

UK minister hopes teachers will be prioritised for vaccines

Britain's education minister Gavin Williamson said on Thursday he hoped that teachers would be "up the list" for receiving a Covid-19 vaccine when the first wave of vaccinations is completed.

Britain aims to give shots to 15 million people by mid-February, including the eldest, most vulnerable and frontline health staff, and there have been calls for workers such as teachers and police officers to be prioritised in the second wave of shots.

"We very much hope that, you know, the vital important work that teachers and teaching staff, and support staff do, I would very much like to them up that list," Williamson told BBC TV.

Sweden extends distance learning for high schools

Sweden extended distance learning for high school students and told public employees to continue to work from home, renewing measures to limit the spread of the pandemic despite signs that infections are beginning to slow.

"We can see a cautious downturn in the spread of infection in some regions, but the situation remains serious," Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told reporters at a news conference.

The government, however, adjusted recommendations for high schools to allow a mixture of distance learning and normal lessons in school and extended a ban on sales of alcohol after 2000 by two weeks.

Thailand reports 142 new cases

Thailand confirmed 142 new coronavirus cases, taking its total infections to 12,795.

There were no additional deaths reported, with total fatalities remaining at 71. Seventeen of the new infections were imported, the Covid-19 taskforce said at a daily briefing.

Germany's confirmed cases rise by 20,398 - RKI

The number of confirmed cases in Germany increased by 20,398 to 2,088,400, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed . 

The reported death toll rose by 1,013 to 49,783, the tally showed. 

Some virus mutations may dampen vaccine effectiveness

Scientists are reporting troubling signs that some recent mutations of the virus that causes Covid-19 may modestly curb the effectiveness of two current vaccines, although they stress that the shots still protect against the disease.

Researchers expressed concern about the preliminary findings, in large part because they suggest that future mutations could undermine vaccines. The research tested coronaviruses from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil, and was led by Rockefeller University in New York with scientists from the National Institutes of Health and elsewhere.

The Rockefeller researchers got blood samples from 20 people who had received either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine and tested their antibodies against various virus mutations in the lab.

With some, the antibodies didn't work as well against the virus – activity was one-to-threefold less, depending on the mutation, said the study leader, Rockefeller’s Dr. Michel Nussenzweig.

Earlier research established that the two vaccines are about 95 percent effective in preventing Covid-19 illness.

The latest findings were posted on an online website for researchers and have not yet been published in a journal or reviewed by other scientists.

Hong Kong set to approve Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine 

Hong Kong is set to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine before the end of the week, with a warehouse in the financial centre being selected to store the vials, the South China Morning Post reported on Thursday.

Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee is set to approve use of the vaccine this week, clearing the way for the first round of one million inoculations after Lunar New Year.

Mexico adds more than 20,000 new cases

Mexico has confirmed 20,548 new coronavirus cases and 1,539 fatalities, according to health ministry data, bringing its totals to 1,688,944 infections and 144,371 deaths.

The real number of infections and deaths is likely significantly higher than the official count, the ministry has said, reflecting a lack of widespread testing.

China sees rise in new cases despite curbs

China has reported a rise in new Covid-19 cases despite a flurry of recent measures to contain the latest outbreak in the northeast, with Heilongjiang province recording its biggest daily increase in new patients to date.

Tens of millions of residents in Hebei province surrounding Beijing, the northeastern Jilin province and Heilongjiang have been put into lockdown in recent weeks amid what is the worst wave of new infections since March 2020.

Authorities are asking people to stay home during the Lunar New Year holidays in February as part of the efforts to prevent another debilitating outbreak.

A total of 144 new cases were reported on January 20, the National Health Commission said, matching the total reported on January 14 and marking the highest number of daily infections since March 1. This still remains a fraction of what China saw during the height of the outbreak in January-February 2020, however.

Of the 126 new local infections, Heilongjiang accounted for 68 while Jilin reported 33. Hebei, which had so far seen the biggest spike in cases this month, reported 20 new cases, and Beijing reported two cases.

The number of new asymptomatic cases, which China does not classify as confirmed infections, rose to 113 from 58 a day earlier.

The total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in mainland China now stands at 88,701, while the death toll remained unchanged at 4,635.

World Bank, IMF agree to hold April meetings online due to Covid-19 risks

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have agreed to hold their spring meetings, planned for April 5-11, online instead of in person due to continued concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, they said in joint statement.

The meetings usually bring some 10,000 government officials, journalists, business people and civil society representatives from across the world to a tightly-packed two-block area of Washington that houses their headquarters.

This will be the third of the institutions' semiannual meetings to be held virtually due to the pandemic.

Ecuador says first batch of 18 million contracted doses of Covid-19 vaccine arrive

Ecuador has said the first batch of 18 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines it contracted for with three pharmaceutical companies and the COVAX initiative arrived for a pilot plan with medical staff from public hospitals and nursing homes.

After several months of negotiations, Health Minister Juan Carlos Zevallos said the Andean nation had firm contracts with pharmaceutical companies Covaxx, Pfizer Inc and AstraZeneca for the delivery of 10 million doses and with the global COVAX initiative, led by the World Health Organizati on and GAVI vaccine alliance to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines, for 8 million additional doses.

"Each country wants to have more vaccines," Zevallos said in a press call. "And these commitments, which have already been made, ensure that we vaccinate 9 million people."

Ecuador has 17.4 million people and allocated some $200 million for the purchase of vaccines.

A first shipment from Pfizer arrived at Quito's international airport on Wednesday afternoon for distribution to 44 municipalities in the next three weeks. Those vaccines are part of a batch of 86,0 00 emergency doses that will be delivered by the US company through the end of February.

In recent weeks, Ecuador has seen an increase in the speed of virus transmission in several cities, leading intensive care units in public and private hospitals to almost reach capacity.

There has also been an increase in coronavirus deaths in Guayaquil, which endured one of the worst outbreaks in the region last March and April.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies