Novel coronavirus has infected more than 79 million people globally and claimed over 1.7 million lives. Here are the updates for December 24.

Pedestrians walk past a COVID-19 Tier 4 information sign in central London on December 23, 2020.
Pedestrians walk past a COVID-19 Tier 4 information sign in central London on December 23, 2020. (AFP)

Thursday, December 24, 2020

First 300,000 doses of Russia's Sputnik vaccine arrive in Argentina

Some 300,000 doses of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine arrived in Argentina on Thursday morning, following its approval by the government for emergency use.

On a special flight of carrier Aerolineas Argentinas from Moscow, the vaccine arrived at Ezeiza international airport, in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, according to Reuters witnesses and images shown on local television.

Argentine officials said they expect to start administering the vaccine in the days ahead. 

On Wednesday, Argentina became the third country to approve the Sputnik V vaccine, after Russia and Belarus. 

Argentina has also approved Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine.

Russia's Direct Investment Fund, or RDIF, the country's sovereign wealth fund, issued a statement heralding the Christmas Eve arrival of the vaccine in Argentina, saying it had 91.4% efficacy, based on recent trials. 

Against severe cases, the vaccine had 100% efficacy, it said.

Morocco orders 65M vaccine doses

Morocco said Thursday it had ordered 65 million doses of novel coronavirus vaccine, as the North African kingdom prepared to launch a vaccination campaign targeting 25 million people.

"Preparations have reached very advanced stages," Health Minister Khalid Ait Taleb said in a statement on the rollout plans.

"Field exercises covering all stages of the process of vaccinating citizens have been put in place."

A government source confirmed to AFP that Morocco has opted for the Chinese Sinopharm and British AstraZeneca vaccines, which both require two shots.

No date has been given for the arrival of the jabs or for the start of the vaccine rollout.

Mexico starts giving first shots of Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine

An intensive care nurse in Mexico City Thursday became the first person in Latin America to receive an approved vaccine.

Mexico began administering the first 3,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in a broadcast ceremony in which Maria Irene Ramirez, 59, got the first shot, under the watchful eyes of military personnel who escorted the vaccine shipment.

“This is the best present I could have received in 2020,” said Ramirez. ”The truth is we are afraid, but we have to keep going because someone has to be in the front line of this battle."

Assistant Health Secretary Hugo Lopez-Gatell waxed poetic, saying, “Today the stage of the epidemic and its treatment changes, to a ray of hope.”

Zoe Robledo, director of Mexico’s social security system, called it “an unforgettable Christmas. We are sure this is going to be the beginning of the end of the pandemic.”

Other doctors and nurses rolled up their sleeves in the chill morning air at outside vaccination stations in the cities of Toluca and Queretaro. 

The country's 1.4 million health workers will be the first to get the shots, followed by the elderly, those with underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the disease, and teachers.

Brazil virus death toll approaches 190,000

Brazil on Thursday registered 58,428 additional cases and 762 related deaths in the prior 24 hours, according to data from the country's health ministry.

The South American country has now registered 7,423,945 total confirmed cases and 189,982 deaths.

France records 21,634 new cases

France recorded a further 21,634 new, confirmed cases and 292 more deaths in hospitals from the virus in the last 24 hours, according to data from the health ministry.

France now has a total of 2,527,509 confirmed cases, while the total number of French deaths stands at 62,268.

France currently has the seventh-biggest COVID-19 death toll in the world.

Study: New virus strain to cause more deaths in UK

A mutated virus strain spreading in Britain is on average 56 percent more contagious than the original version, scientists have warned in a study, urging a fast vaccine rollout to help prevent more deaths.

The new variant, which emerged in southeast England in November and is spreading fast, is likely to boost hospitalisations and deaths from Covid next year, according to the study published Wednesday by the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Researchers, focusing on the English southeast, east and London, said it was still uncertain whether the mutated strain was more or less deadly than its predecessor.

"Nevertheless, the increase in transmissibility is likely to lead to a large increase in incidence, with Covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths projected to reach higher levels in 2021 than were observed in 2020, even if regional tiered restrictions implemented before 19 December are maintained," they said.

The authors warned that a national lockdown imposed in England in November was unlikely to prevent an increase of infections "unless primary schools, secondary schools, and universities are also closed".

Any easing of control measures, meanwhile, would likely prompt "a large resurgence of the virus".

Italy enters Christmas lockdown amid signs of resurgence

Police in Italy enforced new travel restrictions aimed at limiting Christmas get-togethers involving far-flung family members as public health officials appealed Thursday for a “drastic reduction" in social contacts to prevent new infections over the holidays.

A modified nationwide lockdown went into effect on Christmas Eve with restrictions and closures similar to the 10 weeks of hard lockdown the Italian government enforced from March to May, when Italy became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in Europe.

The aim of the Dec. 24-Jan. 6 slowdown is to prevent a January resurgence after Italy's fall wave of coronavirus infections killed more people than during the country's first spring outbreak, according to official counts.

Italy's total confirmed cases passed the 2 million mark Thursday, while 505 more deaths brought country's official toll in the pandemic to 70,900, the most in Europe.

Iran acts to buy and test vaccines

Iran has reached an initial agreement to buy vaccines from overseas and plans to test a domestically produced shot soon, state media reported on Thursday, as the daily number of deaths fell to a three-month low.

Central Bank chief Abdolnaser Hemmati said Iran had reached a preliminary deal to transfer money for vaccines and would pay around $244 million for initial imports of vaccines.

Hemmati gave no more details. The country said recently that US sanctions were preventing it from making payments to COVAX, a multi-agency group dedicated to assuring fair access to vaccines for low- and middle-income countries. 

Some 190 economies have signed up to the COVAX scheme.

Iran's Shifa Pharmed began registering volunteers this week for human trials of the country's first domestic vaccine candidate, Iranian media reported.

Brazil suspends UK flights over new virus strain

Brazil will suspend flights from Britain from Friday, after the appearance of a new strain of virus in that country, according to a decree published Thursday.

"International flights to Brazil coming from or passing through the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are temporarily banned," the decree said.

Foreigners who have been in Britain during the last 14 days are also banned from entering.

About 50 countries have suspended since Sunday the arrivals of travelers from Britain after the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus.

The decree also prohibits the entry of foreigners by land and river into Brazil as of Thursday, with the exception of travelers from Paraguay and the transport of goods.

And it introduces from December 30 a requirement for foreigners entering Brazil by air to present a negative PCR test performed less than 72 hours before boarding.

Turkey's coronavirus deaths rise by 254

Turkey's coronavirus death toll rose by 254 in the last 24 hours, Health Ministry data showed on Thursday, bringing the total number of deaths to 19,115.

Turkey also recorded 18,102 new coronavirus cases, including asymptomatic ones, in the last 24 hours, the data showed.

Total cases since the beginning of the pandemic stood at 2,100,712, it showed.

Ankara has imposed full weekend lockdowns and weekday curfews to curb the number of daily infections.

Turkey to receive 3M CoronaVac vaccine doses

An infectious disease expert serving on Turkey’s medical board says an experimental vaccine developed by Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac showed an efficacy rate of 91,25 percent based on early results of late-stage trials in the country.

CoronaVac is a so-called inactivated vaccine developed by Sinovac Biotech. 

Dr. Serhat Unal announced the initial results Thursday following randomised trials involving 7,371 volunteers and said the vaccine was safe.

Turkey’s Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said the results were the first to be announced for CoronaVac.

Sinovac had delayed announcement of results from late-stage trials to January.

Koca said the first shipment of three million doses of CoronaVac would be shipped to Turkey on Sunday and arrive Monday. 

Africa CDC: New virus variant emerges in Nigeria

Another new variant of the virus has emerged in Nigeria, Africa’s top public health official said Thursday, but further investigation is needed.

“It’s a separate lineage from the UK and South Africa,” the head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong, told reporters. 

He said the Nigeria CDC and the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases in that country, will be analysing more samples.

“Give us some time ... It’s still very early,” he said.

The alert about the new variant was based on two or three genetic sequences, he said, but that and South Africa’s alert late last week were enough to prompt an emergency meeting of the Africa CDC this week.

The news comes as infections surge again in parts of the African continent.

Serbia begins vaccination drive, with PM first in line

Prime Minister Ana Brnabic received Serbia's first vaccine shot on Thursday, kicking off a mass inoculation drive with doses developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.

Some 4,875 doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccines were flown on Tuesday to Serbia, making it the first country in the Balkans to acquire shots against the virus.

"I'm honoured to be able to do this for my country and be the first one, paving the way for other citizens (to be vaccinated)," Brnabic said after being inoculated at the Institute of Virology, Vaccines and Sera in Belgrade.

Brnabic said shipments of China's Sinopharm vaccines and Russia's Sputnik V vaccines were expected to arrive in the country soon, but did not give any specific time line.

Worried Morocco bans parties to stem holiday virus spread

Morocco has imposed a curfew, closed restaurants in major cities and banned public and private gatherings for three weeks — including the usually festive New Year's Eve — to curb the spread of the virus.

The curfew between 2000 GMT and 0500 GMT went into effect Wednesday night and is set to last until Jan. 13.

All restaurants in the cities of Casablanca, Marrakech, Agadir and Tangier must close for that period, according to government orders this week. Elsewhere, restaurants, coffee shops, shops and supermarkets will have to close at 1900 GMT.

Morocco has reported more than 7,000 virus-related deaths and more than 420,000 cases, the highest in the region and second-highest official figures in Africa.

Indonesia issues UK travel ban over coronavirus variant

Indonesia has banned travellers from Britain and tightened the rules for those arriving from Europe and Australia to try to limit the spread of a new variant, a circular issued by the country's Covid-19 task force this week says.

Foreigners arriving from Britain, where a coronavirus variant is spreading rapidly, would not be allowed entrance, the circular said.

Travellers from Europe and Australia must bring a negative swab test result, be retested upon arrival and, even if that test is negative, quarantine for five days.

Doni Monardo, the head of the task force, told a radio talkshow on Thursday the new rules for Europe and Australia followed an indication the virus variant was spreading there.

The circular is effective until Jan. 8.

Denmark finds 33 cases of new variant of coronavirus

Denmark has identified 33 infections with the new variant of the virus that has been spreading rapidly in parts of Britain, according to authorities.

The State Serum Institute (SSI), Denmark's infectious disease authority, said in a report published on Wednesday that the cases had been found in Covid-19 tests carried out between Nov. 14 and Dec. 14.

Denmark, an international leader in genome sequencing, has so far analysed genetic material from 7,805 positive tests in that period, meaning the variant was found in about 0.4% of the infections.

Since just 13.5% of all the positive tests in the period have been analysed so far, the SSI said that variant percentage could change.

Thailand confident coronavirus outbreak is controllable

Thailand’s government is confident it can contain a major resurgence without a national lockdown, instead relying on provincial controls as the outbreak mainly among migrant seafood workers continued to spread.

“I can assure that the government will do its best,” Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha said in a live televised address after a meeting of the government’s Covid-19 coordinating center. 

“The Public Health Ministry confirms to me that it is controllable if everyone gives cooperation.”

Thailand generally has been seen as successful in combating the virus due partly to its well-regarded public health infrastructure and people's adherence to mask-wearing and other protocols.

But cases have jumped significantly since an outbreak was detected last week among migrants from Myanmar working at a seafood market in Samut Sakorn, a province near the capital Bangkok. 

Millions of low-wage jobs in Thailand are filled by workers from less affluent neighboring countries, especially Myanmar.

Since Sunday, more than 1,000 migrant workers have tested positive for the virus, along with Thais working or living near the seafood market, which supplies much of the country.

Survey finds one in 85 people infected with Covid-19 in UK

The prevalence of Covid-19 cases in England jumped again in the week leading up to December 18, with around 645,800 people, or 1 in 85, estimated to be infected, Britain's Office for National Statistics (ONS) has said.

"The percentage of people testing positive has continued to increase sharply in London, the East of England, and the South East; London now has the highest percentage of people testing positive," the ONS said.

Prevalence in the preceding week was 1 in 95, the ONS had estimated.

Ukraine passes 1 million coronavirus cases

A total of 1.001 million coronavirus cases have been registered in Ukraine.

Ukrainian health minister Maksym Stepanov said that 631,435 people recovered and 17,395 died from the virus.

Eritrea reports first death

Eritrea has reported its first death from Covid-19.

The country's information ministry has said in a statement on its website that its total confirmed cases of the coronavirus stood at 877, while recoveries were 599.

It gave no more details on the death.

Eritrea reported its first coronavirus case on March 21.

France's Macron shows no more symptoms

French President Emmanuel Macron is showing no more symptoms of the virus, the Elysee office says.

Macron can now end his quarantine after he self-isolated for seven days at the presidential retreat of La Lanterne, close to the Palace of Versailles, the office said in a statement.

Russia reports 29,900 new cases

Russian authorities have reported 29,935 new coronavirus cases, the highest daily spike in the pandemic.

This is nearly 2,700 infections more than was registered the previous day. Russia’s total of over 2.9 million remains the fourth largest coronavirus caseload in the world. 

The government’s coronavirus task force has also registered more than 53,000 deaths in all.

Czech Republic reports 14,054 new cases

The Czech Republic has recorded 14,054 new cases, its largest daily tally since November 4 as a spike in infections approaches previous peaks.

The Czech government announced it would shift to the highest level of its risk index from Sunday, triggering tighter restrictions that include closing non-essential shops, ski lifts and imposing stricter curfew and gathering rules.

Daily infections are again nearing peaks of above 15,000 a day seen in October and November and the seven-day test positivity rate has risen this week to almost 29 percent.

The government is seeking to keep the strain off hospitals with the number of Covid-19 patients currently needing care at 4,836, after peaking at over 8,000 last month.

China to suspend flights to and from the UK

China will suspend flights to and from the UK, joining a growing list of countries who have instituted travel bans, in light of a new variant of the coronavirus.

It did not offer details on when flights would stop. The Chinese Visa Application Service Centre in London said it will suspend its operation until further notice.

Non-Chinese passport holders from the UK were already banned from travelling to China in November.

Israel announces third nationwide lockdown

Israel has announced that it will impose a nationwide lockdown from next week, its third of the Covid-19 pandemic, just days after it began vaccinations against the virus.

Israelis will be barred from travelling more than one kilometre (1,000 yards or so) from their homes and businesses will be closed except for deliveries. Exceptions will be made for those travelling for vaccinations and schools will remain partially open for some age groups.

The new lockdown comes after a sharp rebound in the infection rate since the last lockdown in September, when the per capita infection rate was among the highest in the world.

In a population of nine million, Israel has now confirmed 385,022 coronavirus cases, 3,150 of them fatal.

Taiwan cancels tourism event after virus case

Taiwan's tourism department has cancelled an annual New Year celebration at the northeastern tip of the island, after a report of the first locally transmitted Covid-19 case since April 12.

The event, to watch the sunrise on the first day of the year, was due to take place in the coastal town of Fulong.

Taiwan has so far reported a total of 777 cases - mostly imported - and seven deaths.

Aurobindo Pharma to make COVAXX's potential vaccine for India

Aurobindo Pharma Ltd has said it would make and sell US-based COVAXX's vaccine candidate for supply in India and to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) under a licensing deal.

The Indian drugmaker also has non-exclusive rights to sell the shot — which is currently undergoing an early-stage trial — in certain other emerging markets, the Hyderabad-based company said in an exchange filing.

COVAXX, a unit of privately-owned United Biomedical Inc, plans to pursue mid- and late-stage trials for the vaccine candidate from early 2021 in Asia, Latin America and the United States.

New South Wales marks downward trend in new cases

Australia's most populous state of New South Wales (NSW) has maintained its steady downward trend in new infections as it battles to quash a virus cluster in the northern coastal suburbs of Sydney, the state capital.

New South Wales reported nine new local cases versus eight a day earlier, taking the total cases in the cluster to more than 100.

NSW on Wednesday slightly eased coronavirus restrictions for the Christmas period after new daily cases slowed in recent days, though around a quarter of a million people in Sydney remained under lockdown. 

South Korea signs deals to secure vaccine with Pfizer and Janssen

South Korea has signed deals with Pfizer Inc and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen to secure coronavirus vaccines for 10 million people and 6 million, respectively, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun has told a televised briefing.

The government had previously signed deals with four companies, including Janssen and Pfizer as part of a programme that will provide coronavirus vaccines for 44 million people.

Mexico sees 11,653 new cases, 816 deaths

Mexico has reported 11,653 new confirmed cases of coronavirus infection and 816 additional fatalities, bringing the total in the country to 1,350,079 cases and 120,311 deaths.

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

One million Americans vaccinated for Covid-19

Tennessee has emerged alongside California as an epicentre of the latest Covid-19 surge even as more than 1 million Americans have been vaccinated as US political leaders sought to guard against a highly contagious coronavirus variant sweeping across Britain.

Tennessee averaged nearly 128 new infections per 100,000 people over the last week, the highest of any US state, according to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

California stood second at 111 new cases per 100,000 residents.

"Our state is ground zero for a surge in Covid-19 and we need Tennesseans to (do) their part," Governor Bill Lee said on Twitter, urging residents to wear face masks and gather only with members of their own household over Christmas.

Singapore confirms first case of new virus variant

Singapore has confirmed its first case of the new coronavirus variant found in the United Kingdom, while 11 others who were already in quarantine had returned preliminarily positive results for the new strain.

All the cases, which were imported from Europe, have been placed in 14-day quarantine at dedicated facilities or isolated upon arrival, and their close contacts had been quarantined earlier.

"There is currently no evidence that the B117 strain is circulating in the community," Singapore's Health Ministry said, referring to the new, potentially more infectious UK strain.

Singapore has been conducting viral genomic sequencing for confirmed Covid-19 cases that arrived from Europe recently.

The strain was found among 31 cases from Europe, who arrived in Singapore between November 17 and December 17 and were confirmed to have Covid-19 this month.

South Korea reports 985 new cases

South Korea has reported 985 new coronavirus cases, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency has said.

This brings the nation's tally to 53,533, with 756 deaths.

South Korea managed to keep cases relatively low during the previous two waves of infection, but the third wave has proven far more challenging for contact tracers to contain because of its emergence in the densely populated capital region.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies