The global coronavirus pandemic has infected at least 75 million people around the world and claimed more than 1.6 million lives. Here are updates for December 18:

Crowds of shoppers walk under the Christmas lights in Regent Street, in London, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020
Crowds of shoppers walk under the Christmas lights in Regent Street, in London, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020 (AP)

Friday, December 18, 2020

UK reports 28,507 new cases

The United Kingdom has recorded 28,507 new Covid-19 cases and 489 deaths within 28 days of a positive test for the virus, according to official data.

Thursday's data had shown 35,383 new coronavirus infections - including around 11,000 previously unreported cases from Wales - and 532 deaths.

Russia vaccinates its cosmonauts

Russia has begun vaccinating its cosmonauts and staff at Star City, the closed town near Moscow that is home to the country's space programme, the Roscosmos space corporation said.

Russia rolled out the Sputnik V jab to medics and other frontline workers in Moscow earlier this month, and more than 200,000 people have already been vaccinated.

Cosmonaunts Nikolai Chub and Oleg Artemyev, a former crew member of the International Space Station, had the first of the two Sputnik V vaccine jabs, it said.

New strain in South Africa 

South Africa is experiencing a new variant of the virus that is driving a second wave of infections, the health minister said.

"We have convened this public briefing today to announce that a variant of the SARS-COV-2 Virus - currently termed 501.V2 Variant - has been identified by our genomics scientists here in South Africa," Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize tweeted.

The World Health Organization said on Monday it was aware of a new variant of Covid-19 that had emerged in Britain, but there was no evidence showing the strain behaved differently to existing types of the virus.

Turkey's deaths at record 246

Turkey's daily coronavirus death toll has hit a record high of 246 in the last 24 hours, Health Ministry data showed, bringing the total number of deaths to 17,610.

Turkey also recorded 26,410 new cases, including asymptomatic ones, in the last 24 hours. 

UK reports 28,507 new cases

The United Kingdom has recorded 28,507 new virus cases and 489 deaths within 28 days of a positive test for the virus, according to official data.

Thursday's data had shown 35,383 new coronavirus infections - including around 11,000 previously unreported cases from Wales - and 532 deaths.

Slovak PM tests positive for Covid-19

Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovic, 47, has posted a message showing his positive test and an order to observe 10 days of isolation on Facebook, a week after attending a summit with French President Emmanuel Macron who later tested positive for the disease.

Macron's announcement that he had tested positive for Covid-19 prompted a track-and-trace effort across Europe following numerous meetings between the French leader and European Union heads of government, some of whom decided to self-isolate.

Macron says 'doing well' after virus infection

French President Macron said he was doing well after testing positive for Covid-19 in a video message posted on his Twitter account that he appeared to have recorded himself with a phone.

"I am doing well. I have the same symptoms as yesterday: tiredness, headaches, dry everywhere. Like hundreds of thousands of others of you," he said. 

"My activity is a little slowed down due to the virus. But I am continuing to take care of the priority issues like the epidemic or, for example, Brexit."

1 in 5 prisoners in US has Covid-19, 1,700 died

As the pandemic enters its 10th month, at least 275,000 prisoners have been infected, more than 1,700 have died and the spread of the virus behind bars shows no sign of slowing. As the virus spreads largely unchecked behind bars, prisoners can’t social distance and are dependent on the state for their safety and well-being.

One in every five state and federal prisoners in the United States has tested positive for the coronavirus, a rate more than four times as high as the general population. In some states, more than half of prisoners have been infected, according to data collected by The Associated Press and The Marshall Project. 

Italy reports 17,992 new Covid-19 cases and deaths

Italy has reported 674 coronavirus-related deaths against 683 the day before while the daily tally of new infections decreased to 17,992 from 18,236.

There were 179,800 swabs carried out in the past day, down from a previous 185,320 the health ministry said.

Sweden tightened measures amid second Covid-19 wave

Sweden's government has introduced the toughest measures yet to help stave off a second wave of the pandemic, including recommending masks on public transport and closing non-essential public workplaces.

"It is not possible to return to a normal everyday life. A pandemic is a life and death matter," Prime Minster Stefan Lofven told a news conference.

VP Mike Pence vaccinated for Covid-19 

Vice President Mike Pence, his wife Karen and Surgeon General Jerome Adams were vaccinated for Covid-19 during the televised White House event aimed at reassuring Americans the vaccine is safe. He celebrated the shot as “a medical miracle” that could eventually contain the raging coronavirus pandemic.

“The American people can be confident: we have one and perhaps within hours two” safe vaccines,” Pence said after being injected with Pfizer-BioNTech’s shot and, referring to expected FDA approval for Moderna’s vaccine. “Building confidence in the vaccine is what brings us here this morning,” he added.

President-elect Joe Biden expects to receive his shot as soon as next week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both said that they will get vaccinated in the next few days. 

Europe purchases additional 80M doses of Moderna's vaccine

Drug developer Moderna Inc said the European Commission had exercised its option to purchase an additional 80 million doses of its experimental Covid-19 vaccine.

The European Commission's total order commitment to date is now 160 million doses and the first deliveries of the vaccine to European countries is slated to begin in early 2021 following regulatory approval, the company said. 

The European Union has supply deals with other vaccine makers, including for up to 300 million doses of Pfizer Inc and Biontech's shot.

COVAX doubles global vaccine supply to 2 billion doses

The COVAX alliance which aims to secure Covid-19 vaccines for the world's most vulnerable people said it had gained access to nearly 2 billion doses, roughly doubling its supply, with the first deliveries expected in the first quarter of 2021.

The initiative run by the Gavi vaccine alliance and World Health Organization said that it aimed to deliver 1.3 billion doses of approved vaccines next year to 92 eligible low - and middle-income economies.

All 190 economies that have agreed to participate in the programme will "have access to doses in the first half of 2021, with first deliveries anticipated to begin in the first quarter of 2021 – contingent upon regulatory approvals and countries’ readiness for delivery," it said in a statement.

Sweden registers a record 9,654 new cases

Sweden, whose unorthodox pandemic strategy placed it in the global spotlight, has registered a record 9,654 new coronavirus cases, Health Agency statistics showed.

The increase compared with a previous high of 8,881 daily cases recorded on the previous day.

Sweden registered 100 new deaths, taking the total to 7,993. 

J&J enrolls participants for late-stage vaccine trial

Johnson & Johnson has enrolled about 45,000 participants for the first late-stage trial of its Covid-19 single-dose vaccine candidate.

It expects interim data by late-January.

The company, however, is lagging rivals Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc in the race for a vaccine to combat the Covid-19 pandemic that has infected about 75 million people globally.

J&J's study, named Ensemble, is being conducted by its unit Janssen, the drugmaker said in a statement.

China to start opening vaccination programme to general public

China plans to start opening its vaccination programme to members of the public in southwestern Sichuan province early next year, despite the inoculations not yet receiving official approval.

At least one million people have already received a jab in China after vaccine candidates were approved for "emergency use", but so far they have been limited to priority groups such as state employees and international students.

China has five coronavirus vaccines in the final stages of development -- but none has received official approval from authorities and the results of late-stage trials have yet to be published.

Thailand reports local infections after reopening for tourists

Thailand has reported four new local virus infections just as the country has started reopening for tourists after months of keeping the virus at bay.

A 67-year-old woman who sells shrimp in the Samut Sakhon province was confirmed to have the infection, senior health official Sopon Iamsirithaworn told a news conference, adding that three of her family members later also tested positive. 

She did not have a history of travelling outside the country, the official said, adding they were waiting for the results of the tests of 165 other people who had been in close contact with the woman. 

New English lockdown can't be ruled out after Christmas-  minister

A new national lockdown in England cannot be ruled out after Christmas, British schools minister Nick Gibb has said, although he emphasised the regional "tiered" system of Covid-19 restrictions was effective.

Northern Ireland and Wales have both outlined plans to head back into lockdown after Christmas to control infection rates, raising suggestions that England might follow suit.

"Nothing is ruled out of course as we tackle this pandemic but the test system is a very effective way... to focus the restrictions," Gibb told Sky News when questioned about a possible third English lockdown.

Asked to confirm that the government was not ruling out a post-Christmas lockdown, Gibb said: "That's not what I said. We have a very effective tier system."

Hungary to start vaccinations after Christmas

Hungarian PM Viktor Orban has said he expects Hungary to emerge from the pandemic by about April. 

Orban said he expected vaccinations to start on Dec. 27 or 28, adding that the first vaccine shipment will be enough to inoculate about 35,000 people.

Burundi ex-president Buyoya dies from Covid-19

The former president of Burundi Pierre Buyoya has died in Paris of Covid-19 at the age of 71.

"President Pierre Buyoya died last night in Paris. He had Covid-19," a member of his family told AFP, requesting anonymity.

Several other relatives confirmed the death of Buyoya, who served as special envoy of the African Union to Mali and the Sahel from 2012 until November this year.

Buyoya "had been hospitalised Wednesday last week in Bamako where he was placed on a respirator," the family member said.

"He was evacuated to Paris yesterday afternoon.

Bank of Japan extends virus-linked lending programme

The Bank of Japan has extended an emergency virus-related lending programme but kept its monetary easing policy unchanged, as the country faces a record spike in new Covid-19 cases.

In May, the central bank launched a new lending scheme aiming to channel funds to small and medium-sized businesses suffering from the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

At a two-day policy meeting, the Bank of Japan (BoJ) extended the end-date for those measures by six months to September 2021.

US president Trump stays on sidelines as vaccine injections begin

President Donald Trump’s administration helped deliver vaccinations against the coronavirus earlier than even some in his administration thought possible, but the president has been largely absent from the effort to sell the American public on what aides hope will be a key part of his legacy.

Trump launched “Operation Warp Speed” — the government campaign to help swiftly develop and distribute vaccines — this spring with great fanfare in the White House Rose Garden.

But now, five days into the largest vaccination campaign in the nation's history, Trump has held no public events to trumpet the rollout.

He hasn't been inoculated himself. He has tweeted only twice about the shot.

Singapore study sheds light on infected pregnant women 

Pregnant women with Covid-19 do not get more sick than the wider population, according to a Singapore study which also found that babies born to infected mothers have antibodies against the coronavirus.

The small study of 16 women also found no evidence of virus transmission between mother and baby, offering insights into an area of Covid-19 infection still not well understood globally.

The World Health Organization says pregnant women can be badly affected by some respiratory infections, and that it is not known whether mothers with Covid-19 can pass the virus to their babies during pregnancy or delivery.

Eight nuns die of virus in last week at Wisconsin convent

Eight nuns living at a retirement home for sisters in suburban Milwaukee have died of Covid-19 complications in the last week — including four who passed away on the same day — a grim reminder of how quickly the virus can spread in congregate living situations, even when precautions are taken.

Notre Dame of Elm Grove had been free of the virus for the last nine months, but the congregation that runs the home found out on Thanksgiving Day that one of the roughly 100 sisters who live there had tested positive. 

Despite social distancing and other mitigation efforts that were already in place, several more positive tests followed, said Sister Debra Marie Sciano, the provincial leader for School Sisters of Notre Dame Central Pacific Province.

The first death happened last week, and the death announcements kept coming. Four of the eight nuns died on Monday alone, a difficult situation for other sisters in the home and members of the broader congregation, who consider each other family.

New virus restrictions threaten Hong Kong's last true junk boat

The red sails of the "Dukling" junk boat have glided across Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour for more than six decades.

But the wooden ship has been docked after new measures to stem a fourth wave of the coronavirus were introduced earlier this month, threatening the city's last remaining antique junk.

Strict social distancing rules were brought back after daily cases repeatedly spiked to more than 100, their highest levels since July.

The boat requires at least four workers to operate on the water but two resigned during the pandemic over slashed wages, leaving the Dukling short on numbers.

Cathay Pacific expands cold storage as vaccine roll-out begins

Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd is expanding its cold storage facilities at its cargo terminal to allow it to temporarily hold more than 8.6 million vaccine doses a day as countries begin approving Covid-19 vaccines.

Its current capacity is about 7.1 million doses and a new cold storage room will allow for a further 1.5 million doses, Cathay Director Cargo Tom Owen said in a newsletter.

Airlines battered by Covid-19 are preparing for key roles in the mass vaccine rollout that promises to unlock an immediate boost for the sector - and beyond that, its own recovery and survival.

Swiss weigh closing restaurants to curb coronavirus spread

Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset will ask cabinet colleagues to close restaurants for a month to help curb the spread of the new coronavirus, two newspapers reported.

Switzerland's government has faced pressure to tighten public health measures as new infection numbers remain stubbornly high, putting severe pressure on the healthcare system.

Nearly 400,000 people have been infected with Covid-19 and more than 5,880 have died of it in Switzerland and its tiny neighbour, Liechtenstein.

Hungary to announce new measures to fight economic fallout

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has  said he would announce new measures on Saturday to fight the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, adding in an interview with state radio mr1 that they would take effect on January 1.

Hungary's economy took a big hit in the pandemic, and the government expects gross domestic output to shrink by about 6% in 2020 followed by a modest rebound in 2021.

Orban faces elections in 2022.

Madrid police, partygoers play pandemic cat-and-mouse

With the streets off-limits after midnight, house parties have become increasingly popular in Madrid. 

Often events are organised by club owners whose venues are closed but who reach out to their guest lists. Secrecy is key and an entrance fee is "normal".

Between late October, when a night curfew took effect, and mid-December, Madrid police have broken up 2,910 parties, charged 279 venues and penalised 7,816 people for not wearing a mask.

India records 22,890 new virus cases

India has recorded 22,890 new coronavirus infections, taking its overall tally to 20,000 short of the 10 million mark.

India has recorded the world's second-highest number of infections behind the United States, but numbers have dipped steadily since hitting a peak in September. Daily cases were below 30,000 for the fifth straight day.

Deaths rose by 338, taking the total to 144,789, the country's health ministry said.

Singapore airport goes sub-zero for vaccine transport plan

As the door of the vaccine transport cart opens at Singapore's Changi airport, the sub-zero temperatures inside collide with the warm, tropical air, creating a carpet of steam like hot breath on a winter's day.

These carts known as cool dollies, recently acquired by logistics firm dnata, are part of a government-led plan to leverage the city-state's position as an air cargo hub and to ensure Covid-19 vaccines can be distributed around the region.

The city-state of 5.7 million has said it expects the first shots of Pfizer-BioNTech's coronavirus vaccine to arrive in the Southeast Asian transport hub this month after Singapore became the first country in Asia to approve the vaccine.

Philippines can secure up to 25M doses of vaccines

The Philippines will be able to secure between four to 25 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines from Moderna Inc and Arcturus Therapeutics Holdings Inc.

The US companies were ready to supply the vaccines from the third quarter of 2021, Philippine Ambassador Jose Manuel Romualdez said in a statement, if his government found their proposals acceptable.

The US Food and Drug Administration is expected to grant Moderna emergency use authorisation soon. 

Arcturus expects to start distributing its vaccine in the first quarter of next year after early stage trials showed promising results.

Pfizer applies for virus vaccine approval in Japan

Drugmaker Pfizer Inc has said it applied for approval in Japan of its Covid-19 vaccine, which is already being administered in the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Japanese government has a supply deal with Pfizer for 120 million vaccine doses of the vaccine made by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech.

Pfizer said in a statement it had made the application to Japan's Health Ministry, along with providing information on tests it has carried out up to now.

Members of Congress will get vaccinated with first round of vaccine

Members of the US Congress will be able to get vaccinated for Covid-19 with the distribution of the first tranche of vaccine doses.

In a letter to members of Congress and their staff, Dr. Brian Monahan said he had been notified by the White House's National Security Council that Congress "will be provided with a specific number of Covid-19 vaccine doses to meet long-standing requirements for continuity of government operations."

He said the "small number of Covid-19 vaccine doses reflects a fraction of the first tranche of vaccines as it is distributed throughout the country."

Germany's virus cases rise by 33,777

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany increased by 33,777 to 1,439,938.

 The reported death toll rose by 813 to 24,938, the data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed.

US panel recommends emergency approval of Moderna vaccine

A US panel of experts has voted to recommend emergency approval of Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine, paving the way for six million doses to start shipping as soon as this weekend.

The Food and Drug Administration is now expected to imminently grant an emergency use authorisation (EUA), which would make Moderna's vaccine the second to be approved in a Western country.

Mexico reports 11,799 new cases, 718 more deaths

Mexico's health ministry has reported 11,799 new confirmed cases of coronavirus infection and 718 more fatalities, bringing the country's totals to 1,289,298 cases and 116,487 deaths.

The government says the real number of infected people is likely significantly higher than the confirmed cases.

South Korea reports 1,062 new cases

South Korea has reported 1,062 new coronavirus cases, the second-highest since it confirmed its first infection in January, the Korea DiseaseControl and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.

The daily numbers were above 1,000 for the third straight day for the first time since the start of the pandemic, the KDCAdata showed.

Australia's New South Wales state reports 10 new local cases

Australia's most populous state New South Wales (NSW) has reported 10 new cases of the coronavirus as authorities battled to contain a new cluster in Sydney's northern coastal suburbs.

NSW State Premier Gladys Berejiklian flagged more restrictions might come if the outbreak was not brought under control in the next few days. She said no one should use public transport or visit supermarkets without masks.

"If we can get on top of this in the next two or three days, all of us will be able to have a much better Christmas," Berejiklian said.

Biden tests negative for Covid-19 after aide tests positive

US President-elect Joe Biden has tested negative for Covid-19, after an incoming White House adviser, Cedric Richmond, contracted the deadly respiratory disease, a spokeswoman for Biden said in a statement.

Richmond was not in close contact with Biden as defined by the Centers for Disease Control, spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield said.

Brazil daily deaths rise above 1,000 again

Brazil has recorded 1,092 new Covid-19 deaths, the highest number in over three months, according to data released by the nation's health ministry.

Brazil, which has the second deadliest outbreak behind the United States, also reported 69,826 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus as daily infections rocket up once more after a brief lull.

Portugal imposes overnight curfew on New Year's Eve

An overnight curfew from 11 pm will come into force in Portugal on New Year's Eve, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said, as the country introduces measures to reduce the spread of the coronavirus during the usually busy night.

"We have to totally cut out on New Year celebrations," Costa told reporters after a video meeting with ministers, adding that people would not be allowed to leave their homes between 1 pm and 5 am from January 1 to January 3.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies