The novel coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 98.3 million people around the world, with over 2.1 million fatalities. Here are updates for January 22:

WHO says the new agreement with Pfizer should allow vaccinations to begin in February for health workers.
WHO says the new agreement with Pfizer should allow vaccinations to begin in February for health workers. (Reuters)

Friday, January 22, 2021:

WHO says deal with Pfizer to allow poor countries to start vaccinating in February

The WHO and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has announced a deal for up to 40 million initial doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for poorer countries, through Covax global pool.

"I'm glad to announce that Covax has signed an agreement with Pfizer-BioNTech for up to 40 million doses of its Covid-19 vaccine," World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a press conference in Geneva.

The Covax programme has signed deals for hundreds of millions of doses to vaccinate people in poor and lower-middle income countries, but has yet to begin vaccinations. 

Pfizer's vaccine is so far the only one that has WHO emergency approval.

WHO chief Tedros said the new agreement with Pfizer should allow vaccinations to begin in February for health workers.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said the 40 million doses announced on Friday would be sold on a non-profit basis. 

He described it as an initial agreement and said more doses could be sold through the Covax programme in future.

British PM says new variant may carry higher risk of death

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the new English variant of Covid-19 may be associated with a higher level of mortality although he said evidence showed that both vaccines being used in the country are effective against it.

"We've been informed today that in addition to spreading more quickly, it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant - the variant that was first discovered in London and the southeast (of England) - may be associated with a higher degree of mortality," he told a news briefing.

The warning about the higher risk of death from the new variant, which was identified in England late last year, came as a fresh blow after the country had earlier been buoyed by news the number of new Covid-19 infections was estimated to be shrinking by as much as 4 percent a day.

Johnson said however that all the current evidence showed both vaccines remained effective against old and new variants.

Turkey halts flights from Brazil over new variant 

Turkey has temporarily stopped flights from Brazil due to the rise in cases of the new coronavirus variant, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said on Twitter.

Ankara had previously halted flights from the United Kingdom, Denmark and South Africa due to the new variant. 

UK records over 40,000 daily cases

The United Kingdom has recorded a further 40,261 cases of the disease and 1,401 deaths, up from 1,290 the day before, official data has shown.

However, the vaccine roll out has begun well: The data showed that 5.38 million people have now been given their first dose of the vaccine, with 409,855 receiving it in the last 24 hours, a record high so far

Italy reports over 13,500 new cases, almost 500 deaths

Italy has reported 472 deaths from the virus, against 521 the day before, the Health Ministry has said, while the daily tally of new infections rose to 13,633 from 14,078.

Italy has now registered 84,674 deaths since its outbreak came to light last February, the second-highest toll in Europe and the sixth-highest in the world. 

The country has also reported 2.44 million cases to date.

Turkey reports over 5,900 new cases

Turkey has reported 5,967 cases, including 734 asymptomatic ones, the Health Ministry data has shown.

Turkey's overall case tally is now over 2.41 million, while the nationwide death toll has reached 24,789 with 149 fatalities over the past day.

The second batch of Sinovac Biotech vaccines, 10 million doses, were approved for delivery to Turkey and may arrive by the weekend, Turkey's president announced.

Germany detects first case of Brazilian virus variant

Germany has detected its first case of a newly discovered Brazilian virus variant, feared to be particularly infectious, regional health officials in the state of Hesse have said.

The infected person recently returned from a trip to Brazil and lab tests confirmed he had caught the new strain, Hessian Social Affairs Minister Kai Klose told reporters.

Experts from Germany's Robert Koch Institute say the Brazilian mutation is similar to a new South African variant, which is seen as more contagious than the original virus.

Shanghai outbreak prompts two hospital lockdowns

Shanghai has imposed lockdowns on two of China's best-known hospitals after they were linked to new cases.

Outpatient services have been suspended at Fudan University Shanghai Cancer Center and Renji Hospital. They have been cordoned off, along with some surrounding residential communities.

After months of quelling small clusters with mass testing, isolation and social distancing, China has seen outbreaks grow this winter, mainly in its frigid north. 

The National Health Commission on Friday announced 103 new cases had been detected over the past 24 hours.

Moscow museums reopen as virus rules eased

Moscow city authorities have eased restrictions with locations like museums, exhibition halls and libraries reopening after being closed for over two months.

The number of visitors to museums is limited to 50 percent of maximum capacity, as is the case with theatres, cinemas and concert halls.

Hungary buys Russia's Sputnik V vaccine, first in EU

Hungary has signed a deal to buy Russia's Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine, the first European Union country to do so, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told a briefing during talks in Moscow.

In a live video posted on his Facebook page, Szijjarto told a joint briefing with Russia's health minister that the vaccines would arrive in three tranches, and that details about the size of the shipments would be released later.

The agreement comes days after Hungary's drug regulator gave approval for use of Britain's AstraZeneca and Russia's Sputnik V vaccines against the coronavirus, as Budapest strives to lift coronavirus lockdown measures to boost the economy. The EU's medicines regulator has yet to approve the Russian or AstraZeneca vaccine.

Poland says it could take legal action over Pfizer vaccine delay

Poland could take legal action against Pfizer next month if the US drugmaker does not deliver all scheduled doses of its Covid-19 vaccine, a government spokesman said.

Pfizer, which developed the vaccine with its German partner BioNTech, has reduced the volume of the vaccine it will deliver to European Union countries this week.

Pfizer and BioNTech have declined to comment on the cuts beyond a statement last week, which announced cuts to deliveries as they ramp up manufacturing in Europe.

Italy has said it is considering legal action, amid mounting frustration over the impact the cut in supplies has on vaccination programmes.

Denmark halts all flights from UAE for five days

Denmark has halted all flights arriving from the United Arab Emirates for five days due to potentially unreliable virus tests in Dubai, Denmark's transport ministry said.

The travel restrictions follow suspicions that coronavirus tests that can be obtained in Dubai before departure are not reliable, the ministry said, adding it had taken the decision after a detailed tip-off, without elaborating.

Denmark earlier this month made it mandatory for travellers to show a negative test from the past 24 hours on arrival from all countries.

Japan dismisses Olympics cancellation report as teams back Games

Japan dismissed a report claiming officials see cancelling the Tokyo Olympics as inevitable, as heavyweights the United States, Canada and Australia said they were still preparing for the Games.

Deputy government spokesman Manabu Sakai said there was "no truth" to the report in The Times, which quoted an unnamed ruling coalition source as saying "the consensus is that it's too difficult" to hold the Games.

It is the latest article to cast doubt on the troubled 2020 Olympics, which were postponed over the virus last year but have been hit by a surge in cases and plunging public support.

Germany virus death toll tops 50,000

Germany has recorded more than 50,000 deaths from the virus since the start of the pandemic, the Robert Koch Institute disease control centre said.

It said 859 people died from the virus in the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of fatalities to 50,642.

Germany survived the first wave of the pandemic relatively well, but a second wave has hit Europe's biggest economy hard.

The country this week extended its current lockdown until February 14, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has not ruled out border checks to slow the spread of new, more contagious variants of the virus.

South Korea reports smallest number in cases

South Korea is reporting its smallest daily increase in virus infections in two months as officials express cautious hope that the country is beginning to wiggle out from its worst wave of the pandemic.

The 346 new cases reported brought the national caseload to 74,262. There have been 1,328 deaths.

Health authorities have clamped down on private social gatherings since late December, including setting fines for restaurants if they accept groups of five or more people. 

Russia reports 21,513 new cases in last 24 hours 

Russia reported 21,513 new Covid-19 cases in the last 24 hours, including 3,104 in St Petersburg, taking the national tally to 3,677,352 since the pandemic began.

Authorities reported 580 deaths in the last 24 hours, pushing the official death toll to 68,412. 

UK keeping its borders open for now 

Britain is keeping its borders open for now environment minister George Eustice said, after speculation that the country could be completely shut to arrivals, after it recently tightened requirements for travellers to stop the spread of Covid-19.

"It's right that we are cautious about travel, but we don't think it's right at the moment to close it down altogether and close the border," Eustice told LBC radio.

Britain's current lockdowns ban most international travel while new rules introduced on Monday require a negative pre-departure test for travellers plus a period of quarantine on arrival.

China finds virus cluster in major chicken processing plant

China reported its first cluster of virus cases among workers in a meat processing plant, raising fears among local consumers who have until now mainly worried about the safety of imported foods.

Ten confirmed cases were found in a factory which slaughters 50 million chickens a year in the northeastern city of Harbin and is owned by Thai conglomerate Charoen Pokphand, one of the world's top poultry producers.

Another 28 workers at the plant and three family members were asymptomatic, officials told a news briefing on Thursday.

While China repeatedly pointed to imported frozen meat and fish as the source of coronavirus cases last year, it has not reported significant clusters in its own food processing sector.

France will need new  lockdown if it can't master variant 

France will have to resort to a strict lockdown like those in Ireland and Britain if it fails to rein in the more contagious variants of the virus, a French epidemiologist and government adviser said on Friday.

Arnaud Fontanet, a member of the scientific council that advises the government on Covid-19 policy, also said on France Inter radio the country is in a "very tense situation with exhausted hospital staff". 

Pandemic raises Japan suicide rate after decade of decline

The number of people taking their own lives in Japan rose for the first time in over a decade last year, as the pandemic reversed years of progress combatting a stubbornly high suicide rate.

Japan's health and welfare ministry said on Friday that 20,919 people died by suicide in 2020 according to preliminary data, up 3.7 percent from the previous year. That compares with 3,460 deaths from virus in the same period.

It marks the first year-on-year rise in suicides in more than a decade, with women and children in particular taking their lives at higher rates.

Hungary PM says too early to talk about lifting virus restrictions

Hungary cannot lift restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus until it can carry out a mass inoculation of the people, Prime Minister Viktor Orban told state radio.

Orban said the best approach was to authorise the use of several vaccines as competition would force manufacturers to speed up shipments.

"We don't need explanations, we need vaccines," Orban said, adding that he hoped Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, who is in Moscow for talks on Friday, can secure a deal to buy Russia's Sputnik V vaccine.

Japan tourism push linked to surge in 9 infections 

A domestic tourism campaign promoted by Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga may have contributed to a sharp increase virus infection cases in the country, a prominent adviser to the government's pandemic response said.

While the government has said there is no evidence that its "Go To" travel campaign spread the virus, Suga suspended it in December to contain mounting cases, and as his approval ratings sank over handling of the pandemic.

The campaign, which began in July, had offered various travel-related discounts and vouchers in a bid to prop up regional economies hammered by the pandemic, but critics said it risked spreading the virus from cities to the countryside.

Thailand reports 309 new virus cases

Thailand reported 309 new virus cases, bringing the total number of infections to 13,104 since it detected its first case a year ago.

The tally included 12 imported cases and there were no new deaths reported, the country's Covid-19 taskforce said. Thailand has recorded 71 virus-related fatalities so far.

Hong Kong to place tens of thousands in lockdown for first time

Hong Kong will place tens of thousands of its residents in a lockdown to contain a new outbreak of the virus, the first such measure the Chinese-ruled city has taken since the pandemic began, a local newspaper reported on Friday.

South China Morning Post, citing unnamed sources familiar with the situation, said the new measure will target the Jordan and Sham Shui Po districts which cover a small, but densely populated part of the Kowloon Peninsula.

The districts are home to many ageing, subdivided flats in which the virus could spread more easily.

Australia's Victoria state records 16 days with no community virus

Australia's second most populous state of Victoria eased social gathering restrictions after recording 16 days without any new virus infections in the community, doubling the number of people allowed to gather at home to 30.

The state, which will host the Australian Open tennis tournament in its capital Melbourne next month, has managed to eliminate the virus following an outbreak and one of the world's strictest lock-downs last year.

Ahead of the February 8-12 Grand Slam, as many as 72 players were confined to their hotel rooms for two weeks upon arrival. On Friday, Spain's Paula Badosa became the first player to confirm a positive test while in quarantine in Melbourne.

Mexico marks new daily record in deaths from pandemic

Mexico's health ministry confirmed 1,803 new virus deaths, a daily record since the pandemic began last year in the country with the fourth-highest death toll.

The previous record was set earlier this week at over 1,500 deaths.

While President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has often claimed the outbreak in Mexico has been contained, signs of a worsening crisis abound.

A severe shortage of oxygen tanks in the capital Mexico City used to treat infected people with compromised lungs, combined with a fourfold rise in prices in recent weeks, is one of the latest problems.

China reports 103 new mainland cases 

China reported 103 new virus cases on the mainland on January 21, down from 144 cases a day earlier, the country's national health authority said.

The National Health Commission said in a statement that 94 of the new cases were local infections. The number of new asymptomatic cases, which China does not classify as confirmed cases, rose to 119 from 113 cases a day earlier.

The total number of confirmed virus cases in Mainland China now stands at 88,804, while the death toll remained unchanged at 4,635. 

Colombia deaths top 50,000, cases inch towards 2 million

Deaths from Covid-19 in Colombia have surpassed 50,000, the Ministry of Health said, as reported coronavirus infections approached 2 million.

The Andean country has reported over 1.97 million cases of coronavirus, as well as 50,187 deaths from Covid-19, the disease it causes.

Colombia is dealing with a second wave of coronavirus infections. The country set a daily record of more than 20,000 cases last Friday, and intensive care unit occupancy rates exceed 90 percent in its three biggest cities, the capital Bogota, Medellin, and Cali.

Mali to buy 8.4 million doses of vaccine

Mali plans to buy over 8.4 million doses of coronavirus vaccine and expects to start a vaccination campaign in April, the council of ministers said in a statement.

It said the vaccines would cost over 31 billion CFA francs ($57 million). This will be covered with financial assistance from global vaccine alliance GAVI, which co-runs the COVAX alliance to secure fair access to Covid-19 vaccines for developing countries.

It did not specify which vaccines it planned to buy.

Mali, like other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, is battling a second wave of coronavirus infections, although its infection rate has decreased from a peak in early January, data compiled by Reuters shows.

The West African nation has so far recorded 7,911 Covid-19 cases and 320 deaths.

Biden orders masks, travel clampdown

US President Joe Biden has issued an executive order that would require international air travellers to quarantine upon US arrival, and directed US agencies to implement a federal mask mandate in interstate transportation.

Biden's order says "to the extent feasible" air travellers must comply with applicable US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines concerning international travel "including recommended periods of self-quarantine."

It does not explain how it will be enforced.

The order also directs US agencies to hold talks with Canada and Mexico "regarding public health protocols for land ports of entry" including implementing CDC guidelines. Nearly all non-essential travel at US land borders with Canada and Mexico is suspended through February 21.

Fauci says infections may be plateauing 

Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, said that based on recent seven-day averages, coronavirus infections may be about to hit a plateau in the United States.

At a White House news briefing, Fauci also said coronavirus vaccines can be modified to account for new variants of the virus, and that while the South Africa variant is concerning, it does not appear to be in the United States.

Another highly-transmissible variant of the virus first discovered in the United Kingdom has spread to at least 20 US states, Fauci said.

Fauci said he expects current vaccines will be effective against the recently discovered virus mutations.

New James Bond flick release delayed again

The release of the James Bond movie "No Time to Die" was postponed to October from April, its producers said, another setback for movie theatres trying to rebuild a business crushed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The movie's new debut date is October 8, according to an announcement on the James Bond website and Twitter feed.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies