The global coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 76 million people around the world and claimed more than 1.6 million lives. Here are updates for December 20:

Travellers walk outside of King's Cross station as the British government imposes a stricter tiered set of restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic, in London, Britain, December 20, 2020.
Travellers walk outside of King's Cross station as the British government imposes a stricter tiered set of restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic, in London, Britain, December 20, 2020. (Reuters)

Sunday, December 20, 2020

WHO Europe urges stronger action 

The World Health Organization is calling on its members in Europe to step up measures against coronavirus in the face of the new variant circulating in Britain, its European branch said.

Outside Britain, nine cases of the new strain have been reported in Denmark, as well as one case in the Netherlands and another in Australia, according to the WHO.

"Across Europe, where transmission is intense and widespread, countries need to redouble their control and prevention approaches," said a spokeswoman for WHO Europe.

The UN agency urged its members worldwide to " increase the sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 viruses where possible and sharing of sequence data internationally, in particular, to report if the same mutations of concern are found," she said.

Britain reports record cases

The number of Covid-19 cases in Britain surged by 35,928, official data showed, the highest daily rise since the start of the pandemic.

There were also 326 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, lower than the 534 recorded on Saturday.

The government has toughened restrictions in London and southeast England to try to curb the spread of a new, fast-spreading variant of the virus.

France adds 12,799 new cases overnight

France reported 12,799 new confirmed Covid-19 cases in the last 24 hours on Sunday, pushing the total of infections resulting from the new coronavirus to 2,473,354.

There were 131 deaths, bringing the total to 60,549.

Turkey reports over 20,000 new infections

Turkey has reported 20,316 more coronavirus infections, including 3,546 symptomatic patients, over the past 24 hours, according to Health Ministry data.

The total number of symptomatic patients reached over two million with the latest additions.

As many as 21,218 people also recovered over the past day, bringing the tally to 1.8 million, while the death toll climbed to 18,097 with 246 additions.

Nearly 159,000 Covid-19 tests were carried out across the country, pushing the total to over 22.44 million.

The number of patients in critical condition, meanwhile, stands at 5,347.

Italy reports 352 deaths and 15,104 new cases

Italy reported 352 coronavirus-related deaths against 553 the day before, the health ministry said, while the daily tally of new infections decreased to 15,104 from 16,308.

There were 137,420 swab tests carried out in the past day, down from a previous 176,185 the ministry said.

The first Western country hit by the virus, Italy has seen 68,799 Covid-19 fatalities since its outbreak emerged in February, the highest toll in Europe and the fifth-highest in the world. It has also registered more than 1.95 million cases t o date.

Dutch register record 13,032 new cases

Coronavirus cases in the Netherlands jumped by more than 13,000 in 24 hours to hit another record, data released by Dutch health authorities showed.

Covid-19 infections in the country have continued to rise despite new, stringent lockdown measures imposed by the government on Dec. 14 which included closing schools and shops.

The 13,302 new cases reported by the National Institute for Health on Sunday surpasses the previous record 12,779 recorded on Thursday. 

Kuwait adds UK to its high-risk list of countries

Kuwait's civil aviation authority added the United Kingdom to its high-risk list of countries, meaning all flights from it are banned, the authority wrote on Twitter.

In August, Kuwait banned commercial flights to 31 countries that it deemed high risk due to the spread of the coronavirus. 

Second vaccine authorised in US ships out

Initial shipments of the second vaccine authorised in the US left a distribution centre, a desperately needed boost as the nation works to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control.

The trucks left the factory in the Memphis area with the vaccine developed by Moderna Inc. and the National Institutes of Health. The much-needed shots are expected to be given starting Monday, just three days after the Food and Drug Administration authorised their emergency rollout.

Later Sunday, an expert committee will debate who should be next in line for early doses of the Moderna vaccine and a similar one from Pfizer Inc. and Germany’s BioNTech. Pfizer's shots were first shipped out a week ago and started being used the next day, kicking off the nation’s biggest vaccination drive.

Germany may ban UK, South Africa flights over new strain

Source close to the German health ministry has told AFP that Germany is considering banning flights from Britain and South Africa to prevent the spread of new, more infectious strain circulating in the two countries.

Following the example of the Netherlands, where a ban on all passenger flights from the UK came into effect on Sunday, the German government was considering a similar move as "a serious option" for flights from both Britain and South Africa, the source said.

South Africa and Britain are currently the only two countries in the world that have reported the new strain.

Pfizer irked after Belgian politician publishes vaccine prices

US drugmaker Pfizer complained of a breach of confidentiality after a politician in Belgium published the price per dose of Covid-19 vaccines ordered by the country, according to a Belgian newspaper.

Belgian secretary of state Eva De Bleeker tweeted a table with the number of doses and price per dose of each vaccine, after a 30-hour debate on the Belgian budget in parliament. She subsequently deleted her tweet.

Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, whose Covid-19 vaccine is the first to have been approved by Western regulators, is among suppliers to the European Union, including Belgium.

Elisabeth Schraepen, the US drugmaker's spokeswoman for the Benelux region, told Belgian daily Le Soir that the publication of the details was a breach of confidentiality.

"These prices are covered by a confidentiality clause in the contract with the European Commission," Schraepen said.

Russia reports 28,948 new cases, 511 deaths

Russia has reported 28,948 new cases, including 7,263 in Moscow, taking the national toll to 2,848,377.

Authorities also reported 511 deaths in the past 24 hours, pushing the official death toll to 50,858 since the pandemic began.

Tougher UK curbs may last some time ⁠— health minister

Britain's health minister has suggested that tighter restrictions in London and southeast England to curb a new fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus could stay in place for some time.

Health Minister Matt Hancock, when asked whether people living under the stringent new Tier 4 restrictions should expect to do so for some time, told Sky News: "We've got a long way to go to sort this.

"Essentially we've got to get that vaccine rolled out to keep people safe. Given how much faster this new variant spreads, it's going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out."

Thousands line up for tests amid Thailand virus outbreak

Thousands of people have lined up for tests in a province near Bangkok, as Thai authorities scrambled to contain an outbreak of the virus that has infected nearly 700 people.

Triple lines of mainly migrant workers stretched for around 100 meters in one location alone, at Mahachai in Samut Sakhon province, as health officials in mobile units methodically took nasal swabs. There were three locations in total in the area.

Nearby, razor wire and police guards blocked access to the Klang Koong, or Central Shrimp, seafood market — one of Thailand's largest — and its associated housing, the epicentre of the new cluster.

Indonesia church decorates Christmas tree with masks, sanitisers to promote awareness

A catholic church in Indonesia has decorated a Christmas tree with protective masks and hand sanitisers as a way to spread awareness of the virus in the festive season, as the country's daily death toll hit a record high.

"The tree was made with the intention of making people more aware of the importance of maintaining health protocols," Markus Marcelinus Hardo Iswanto of the parish of The Catholic Church of Christ the King in Indonesia's second-largest city Surabaya told Reuters.

Starting with a bamboo skeleton, the church's followers and the local Muslim community decorated the tree with hundreds of colourful donated masks and hand sanitisers, and took a week to complete the three-metre tree, he said.

WHO in close contact with UK on new virus variant

The World Health Organization has said it was in close contact with UK officials over a new virus variant.

"They'll (UK officials) continue to share info and results of their analysis and ongoing studies. We'll update Member States and public as we learn more about the characteristics of this virus variant and any implications," WHO said in a tweet.

A new strain of coronavirus identified in the United Kingdom is up to 70 percent more infectious but it is not thought to be more deadly and vaccines should still be effective, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and scientists said on Saturday.

Israel begins vaccine drive as infections surge 

Israel has began its virus inoculation drive, aiming to vaccinate some 60,000 people a day in a bid to stamp out the illness that is once again surging among its population.

The country will first immunize health workers, followed by the elderly, high-risk Israelis and those over 60 years old. 

Israel says it has secured sufficient doses for much of the country's 9 million people from both Pfizer and Moderna, whose vaccine US authorities approved this week for emergency use.

With public opinion polls showing many Israelis are reluctant to receive shots right away, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would set a “personal example” and insisted on being the first Israeli vaccinated.

Thailand to test over 10,000 people after record surge

Thailand plans to test more than 10,000 people after a record daily surge in cases to over 500, most of which were among migrant workers linked to a shrimp market near the capital, an official said.

By Wednesday the authorities aim to conduct 10,300 tests in the southwest province of Samut Sakhon, where the outbreak appeared, and such nearby provinces as Samut Songkhram and Nakhon Pathom, Taweesin Wisanuyothin, a spokesman for Thailand's virus taskforce, told a news conference.

US Congress poised to vote on virus aid package

US Congress has appeared poised to vote on a $900 billion virus aid package after senators struck a late-night compromise to clear one of the final hurdles, a dispute over Federal Reserve pandemic lending authorities.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters at the US Capitol late on Saturday night: "If things continue on this path and nothing gets in the way, we'll be able to vote tomorrow."

Pharma chief urges transparency in virus vaccine rollout

Pharmaceutical firms must be "very transparent" about the risks and benefits of vaccines in efforts to end the coronavirus pandemic, the head of Asia's largest drugmaker said.

Takeda, one of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies, is not developing its own vaccine but has contracts with several firms to distribute their jabs in Japan and is also testing a virus treatment.

"We have to manage the situation well, be very transparent and extremely educative in the way we introduce products," chief executive Christophe Weber said.

"Medicines or vaccines are never perfect...there are always some side effects," said Weber.

But he is optimistic the industry can explain the risks and benefits properly.

He sees a chance that the inoculation could help push back the growing tide of uncertainty and outright opposition to vaccination worldwide.

Takeda inked a deal with the Japanese government and US firm Moderna Therapeutics in October to import and distribute 50 million doses of its vaccine in Japan from the first part of 2021.

Germany's confirmed cases rise by 22,771

The number of confirmed cases in Germany has increased by 22,771 to 1,494,009, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed. 

The reported death toll rose by 409 to 26,049, the tally showed.

US begins rolling out Moderna vaccine

The first of millions of doses of Moderna's vaccine have been prepared for shipping to locations across the United States, a top official said, hours after it was authorised for use in the hardest-hit country in the world.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced late Friday that it had granted emergency approval for the vaccine, a week after it did the same with the vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech.

"Distribution of the Moderna vaccine has already begun," said General Gus Perna, who is overseeing the massive logistical operation as part of the government's Operation Warp Speed.

Sydney records 30 new cases as cluster in suburbs grows

Sydney's outbreak has grown to around 70, forcing authorities to introduce stricter social distancing rules across the city, and more states to close borders or impose quarantine measures on its residents.

The neighbouring state of Victoria will close its border to Sydney from midnight Sunday. 

South Australia state introduced a 14-day quarantine for all Sydney arrivals on Sunday and banned travellers from the affected suburbs.

UK nixes Christmas gatherings, shuts London shops over virus

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has imposed a new, stricter level of restrictions on the region to curb rapidly spreading infections.

Millions of people must cancel their Christmas get-togethers and most shops have to close in London and much of southern England.

Johnson said the capital and large areas in southern England already placed under the highest level of the UK government's three-tiered alert system will move into a new Tier 4 that requires all non-essential shops, hairdressers and indoor leisure venues to close after the end of business hours Saturday.

Thailand reports 548 new cases, highest daily spike

Thailand has reported more than 500 new cases, the highest daily tally in a country that had largely brought the pandemic under control.

The 548 new cases, most of them linked to a wholesale seafood market on the outskirts of Bangkok, come after Thailand saw only a small number of infections over the past several months due to strict border and quarantine controls.

Health officials said the new cases are mostly migrant workers from Myanmar connected to the outbreak at the Klang Koong shrimp market in Samut Sakhon province.

Brazil's Bolsonaro says rush for vaccine not justified

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has refused to take any vaccine, has said that he did not think the world's rush for a vaccine was justified because the pandemic is in his view coming to an end.

New cases have not indicated the pandemic is ending. In recent days, several countries including Brazil have reported record numbers of daily cases.

"The pandemic is really reaching its end, the numbers have showed this, we are dealing with small rises now," said Bolsonaro.

"But the rush for the vaccine is not justified because you are playing with people's lives."

US General sorry for vaccine shipment 'miscommunication' 

The Army general in charge of getting vaccines across the United States has apologised for “miscommunication” with states over the number of doses to be delivered in the early stages of distribution.

"I failed. I'm adjusting. I am fixing and we will move forward from there," Gen. Gustave Perna told reporters in a telephone briefing.

Perna's remarks came a day after a second vaccine was added in the fight against the virus which has killed more than 312,000 people in the US.

Governors in more than a dozen states have said the federal government has told them that next week’s shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will be less than originally projected.

US CDC says 6 severe allergy cases from more than 250K shots

US health officials said they have seen six cases of severe allergic reaction out of more than a quarter million shots given.

CDC said more than 272,000 shots of the Pfizer vaccine were given nationwide as of Saturday morning. 

The half-dozen cases of allergic reaction were reported as of Friday night, and included one person with a history of vaccination reactions.

Health officials are keeping close watch for such side effects.

US CDC issues guidelines on vaccination after allergic reactions

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said it was monitoring reports of allergic reactions to the vaccination and made recommendations on how people with histories of allergies should proceed.

Anyone who had a severe reaction to a vaccine should not get the second dose, the agency said, defining severe as needing the medication epinephrine or treatment in a hospital.

People who have had a severe allergic reaction to any ingredient in a vaccine should avoid the vaccine formulation containing the ingredient, CDC said.

Germany's largest virus jab site ready for business

Spaces to queue up have been marked out on the way to the 64 miniature doctors' offices where thousands of people per day will be vaccinated in Hamburg.

Only the green light from the European Union is needed for Germany's largest single vaccination site to spring into action, the brand-new equipment sitting ready in the vast congress centre of the northern port city.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is expected to rule Monday, the final step before Brussels can give the go-ahead, and Germany hopes to start vaccinating on December 27.

Mexico police break up underground parties to enforce rules

Police in one suburb of Mexico City have been playing cat and mouse with revelers at underground parties that flout virus restrictions.

Authorities in the town of Ecatepec raided the same house for the third time to break up a party with mask-less people drinking beer and dancing to a DJ on Friday. 

Raids like Friday's have become frequent as Christmas approaches but they have been staged since the beginning of the pandemic, said Jose Isauro Bautist a, the mayor of Ecatepec, who accompanied police on the raid.

He says he has broken up parties with as many as 250 people.

Brazil registers 50,177 new cases 

Brazil has registered 50,177 new cases of coronavirus, bringing the new total to7,213,155. 

The country Covid-19 deaths rose by 706 to 186,356.

Mexico's death toll rises to 117,876

Mexico's health ministry has reported 12,129 new confirmed cases of coronavirus infection and 627 more fatalities, bringing the country's totals to 1,313,675 cases and 117,876 deaths.

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

South Korea sets record cases as prison reports major outbreak

South Korea reported a record 1,097 new cases on Sunday, including an outbreak in a Seoul prison that infected 185 as the country's latest wave worsens.

With daily infections over 1,000 for a fifth consecutive day, some medical experts criticised the government as being slow to introduce tighter social distancing rules.

South Korea's aggressive tracing and testing early in the pandemic had made the country a global success story when many nations saw soaring infections, prompting wide lockdowns.

But the recent surge - stemming mostly from widespread clusters rather than the large, isolated outbreaks of the previous waves - has heightened concerns as the country runs short of hospital beds.

Dutch ban UK flights due to virus spread

The Dutch government has banned all passenger flights from Britain until January 1 after finding a case in the Netherlands of a new coronavirus strain that has been circulating in the UK.

The health ministry said it "recommends that any introduction of this virus strain from the United Kingdom be limited as much as possible by limiting and/or controlling passenger movements from the United Kingdom."

Canada surpasses 500,000 cases

Canada has surpassed 500,000 coronavirus cases, according to official figures, recording a 25 percent increase in just two weeks.

The country's death toll since the beginning of the pandemic stands at 14,128, according to regional figures quoted by broadcaster CBC.

As in other countries, the pandemic is spreading fast in Canada, home to 38 million people. It shot up from 400,000 cases to 500,000 in just two weeks.

By comparison, it took three months from the start of the health crisis for Canada to reach 100,000 cases, in June.

The government of Ontario province announced this weekend an extension of lockdown measures in Toronto and much of the province until January 4.

These restrictions have already been in force for nearly a month.

Israeli PM joins world leaders getting Covid vaccine 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been vaccinated against the coronavirus on live television, becoming the first Israeli and one of the world's leaders to be inoculated.

Israel is set to begin vaccinating its health workers and nursing home residents beginning on Sunday. 

Netanyahu said he wanted to be the country's first recipient to set a personal example and to encourage Israelis to get the shot. 

US Vice President Mike Pence was vaccinated Friday in a similar attempt to boost public confidence in Covid-19 vaccines.

“I believe in this vaccine,” he said before receiving the injection of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine at the Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv.

Israel has reported more than 366,000 confirmed cases and more than 3,000 virus-related deaths since the start of the pandemic.

The country currently is recording nearly 3,000 new cases a day, and officials have begun debating the possibility of a third nationwide lockdown to bring the outbreak under control.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies