COVID news from January 12: Biden administration warns it could act in response to China’s cancellations of US flights.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has criticised China’s decision to cancel a growing number of flights departing from the United States for China because of passengers who later tested positive for the coronavirus, warning it could retaliate.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia registered its highest daily number of new COVID-19 infections so far, health ministry data showed on Wednesday, breaking 5,000 cases.
The European Medicines Agency says the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant across the continent is pushing COVID-19 towards being an endemic disease that humanity can live with.
Other key developments:
The live blog is now closed, thank you for joining us. Here are the updates for January 12:
Officials in Canada’s most populous province said parents will not be notified of a COVID-19 outbreak at their child’s school until there is a 30 percent absenteeism rate among staff and students.
“It shouldn’t be easier to find out if there is a lice outbreak in your school than a COVID outbreak,” Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said.
Opposition New Democrat lawmaker Marit Stiles said parents have a right to know about outbreaks in classes as they try to evaluate the risks.
The province’s chief medial officer defended the decision by saying the risk of hospitalisation is very low among children and less than with previous strains of the coronavirus.
Starting next month, workers at Universal Orlando’s theme parks will have to be vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing company officials said, in order to comply with federal guidelines.
“The health and safety of our guests and team members has been our ongoing focus during the pandemic,” the company said in a statement. “We will also be monitoring legal action involving these regulations by a variety of state and private interests and will adapt accordingly if there are changes.”
Under federal regulations that took effect Monday, companies with 100 or more employees must require workers to be vaccinated or mandate unvaccinated employees to undergo weekly COVID testing. The regulations are being challenged in the US Supreme Court.
The majority of workers already are fully vaccinated. Those who are not vaccinated have until February 9 or be required to take a test every week.
Not enough Canadian children are being vaccinated against COVID-19 at a time when the Omicron variant threatens to swamp healthcare systems, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday.
As of January 1, 87.6 percent of Canadians over the age of 12 had received two shots. But among those aged five to 12, that number dipped to just two percent, with 45.6 percent having received one dose.
“Almost half of kids across this country have gotten their vaccine … We need to get more, so please ask your parents if you can get vaccinated,” Trudeau said, addressing children directly during a regular briefing.
The Biden administration has blasted China over its decision to cancel a growing number of US departing flights for China because of passengers who later tested positive for COVID-19 and warned it could take action in response.
“China’s actions are inconsistent with its obligations under the U.S.-China Air Transport Agreement. We are engaging with the [Chinese government] on this and we retain the right to take regulatory measures as appropriate,” a US Transportation Department spokesperson said.
China on Wednesday ordered the suspension of six more US flights in coming weeks after a surge in passengers testing positive for the virus.
About 100 Rwandans have crossed into DR Congo in recent days, saying they are fleeing the country’s Covid-19 vaccination rules, local sources said.
Small groups of Rwandans, travelling by canoe, have landed on the southern edge of Idjwi island in Lake Kivu, which straddles the border, the administrator of Idjwi, Karongo Kalaja, told AFP news agency.
“We have already recorded at least 100 [arrivals]”, Kalaja said.
Germany should make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for all adults, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has told parliament, brushing off heckling from opposition lawmakers who accused him of fomenting social divisions.
Scholz’s first question-and-answer session in parliament as chancellor came the same day Germany reported a record 80,430 new infections due to the highly contagious Omicron variant.
“With the decision not to get vaccinated, one ultimately is not just making a decision for oneself but also for 80 million others,” he said on an issue stirring passions around the world as some employers and authorities start to insist on vaccination.
The Danish government has proposed a fourth COVID vaccine dose for highly vulnerable people, amid a spike in cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said the move marked a “new chapter” in the fight against the spread of COVID.
Denmark will offer the fourth dose to “the most vulnerable citizens” – notably those diagnosed with serious ailments who received an initial booster during the autumn, Heunicke told a news conference.
Denmark, population 5.8 million, has so far logged more than one million COVID cases, with more than 90 percent of those emerging in recent weeks of the Omicron variant, and 3,433 people have died after contracting the disease.
AstraZeneca says the United States government has agreed to purchase an additional 500,000 doses of its antibody cocktail Evusheld, used to treat COVID-19.
The additional doses, expected to be delivered in the first quarter of 2022, will add to a previous purchase of 700,000 doses of the antibody therapy, which in December showed it retained neutralising activity against the highly transmissible Omicron coronavirus variant in a lab study.
The US Food and Drug Administration last month authorised Evusheld to prevent COVID-19 infections in individuals with weak immune systems or a history of severe side effects from coronavirus vaccines.
It is the only antibody therapy authorised in the United States to prevent COVID-19 symptoms before virus exposure, the company said.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under pressure to resign after admitting he attended a garden party at his Downing Street residence in May 2020 – in breach of his government’s coronavirus lockdown rules.
Johnson’s admission and apology on Wednesday marked the latest and most-high profile scandal yet in a string of controversies over allegedly rule-breaking gatherings involving the Conservative Party leader, his staff, and other senior figures since the pandemic began.
Al Jazeera tracks what is alleged to have happened here.
The head of health systems research at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health believes the coronavirus spread should not be seen as endemic, as described by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.
“This is not an endemic situation yet. Right now the increasing cases is [an] epidemic,” Jeff Lazarus told Al Jazeera from Barcelona.
But he issued a warning over hospitalisations.
“I’ve been able to visit a few hospitals in Barcelona and the northern regions over the past month, yesterday in Madrid, and their hospitals are filling up. What that is doing is displacing other operations and procedures.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has wavered when asked about a plan by the province of Quebec to issue fines for unvaccinated residents.
“These are very complex issues,” Trudeau said in French at a press conference on Wednesday. “How to balance fundamental rights and freedoms … and at the same time how do you strongly encourage people to continue to get vaccinated?”
Quebec, Canada’s second-most populous province, announced on Tuesday that it plans to impose fines on unvaccinated residents in the coming weeks amid mounting COVID-19 cases and hospitalisations. Details of the plan, including how much the fines would be, have yet to be announced.
“Details matter,” Trudeau said, when pressed on the federal government’s response to the controversial proposal. “We need to know what the terms and conditions of this proposal entail.”
Turkey recorded 77,722 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, its highest daily figure of the pandemic, health ministry data showed.
There were 145 deaths related to coronavirus in the same period, the data showed. In late December, daily cases stood at about 20,000.
The highly infectious Omicron coronavirus variant causes less severe disease than the Delta strain but it remains a “dangerous virus”, particularly for those who are unvaccinated, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday.
Speaking at a news briefing, director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said more than 90 countries were yet to meet the target of vaccinating 40 percent of their populations and more than 85 percent of people in Africa were yet to receive a single dose.
“We mustn’t allow this virus a free ride or wave the white flag, especially when so many people around the globe remain unvaccinated,” he said.
Coronavirus hospitalisations in the United States are up by about 33 percent over the past week and deaths are up about 40 percent, the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, speaking on a media call, said US cases – now driven by the Omicron variant – are expected to peak in the coming weeks.
“The staggering rise in cases, over 1 million new cases each day, has led to a high number of total hospitalisations. As we see hospitals and health systems caring for more and more patients in the midst of staffing challenges and faced with a highly transmissible virus that does not spare our health care workers.”
However, Walensky noted the increased deaths were a lag from the Delta variant and what deaths from Omicron might look like was yet to be determined.
Coronavirus infections are increasing in every country in the Americas and the Omicron variant has been detected in nearly every nation in the region, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said, putting pressure on already strained health systems.
In a weekly virtual briefing on Wednesday, PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said over the past week, COVID-19 infections have nearly doubled in the Americas, rising from 3.4 million cases on January 1 to 6.1 million on January 8.
“Infections are accelerating across every corner of the region of the Americas, and once again, our health systems are being challenged as emergency room visits and hospitalisations are rising,” Etienne said.
PAHO said the United States is reporting the bulk of the new cases but Argentina and Paraguay are seeing a 300 percent increase in cases while Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil are experiencing “significant” rises in new cases. PAHO says 60 percent of Latin America and the Caribbean are fully vaccinated.
Britain reported 129,587 new cases of COVID-19 and 398 more deaths within 28 days of a positive test, according to official data.
That compares with 120,821 cases and 379 deaths a day earlier.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson should resign after he admitted attending a gathering at his Downing Street residence during the first coronavirus lockdown, Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party said, according to Sky News.
Finnish national airline Finnair will cancel some 20 percent of flights next month after a spike in COVID-related staff absences, the company said.
“The Omicron coronavirus variant and flu season has led to a significant increase of sick leave among staff at Finnair and its partners,” the company said in a statement.
“We aim to meet these resourcing challenges through the cancellation of flights, to avoid last-minute changes and better manage our customers’ expectations.”
A Spanish court ordered a regional health authority to compensate scores of doctors for failing to protect them adequately against infection risk during the COVID-19 pandemic’s first and most lethal wave.
Valencia health authority, between March and May 2020, was providing medics treating coronavirus patients in Alicante with just one facemask per week, and forced them to reuse disposable protective gear until early June, judge Ricardo Barrio said.
The court, also in Alicante, ordered the authority to pay compensation of between 5,000 euros ($5,680) and 49,180 euros ($56,220) to each of 153 affected doctors, with those who contracted the virus getting larger sums.
Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa said China would be donating another 10 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine over the course of 2022.
Zimbabwe, like most African countries, is struggling with low rates of vaccination, due to availability issues and also to vaccine hesitancy or public apathy.
The country has so far fully vaccinated just over a fifth of its population of 15 million people, mostly using vaccines either purchased from or donated by China. Nearly a third of Zimbabweans have received at least a single dose of the Chinese vaccine.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is continuing to recover from his coronavirus infection, the country’s Interior Minister Adan Augusto Lopez said.
France’s Institut Pasteur said in a report that it expects to see a peak of new Omicron-variant COVID-19 infections in mid-January, followed by a peak in hospital admissions in the second half of January.
On Tuesday, France reported a new record of nearly 370,000 infections and the seven-day average of new infections set a new high of more than 283,000, while the number of people in intensive care with the coronavirus rose by 65 to 3,969.
A Britain’s High Court has ruled the government acted unlawfully when it used a so-called “VIP lane” to award millions of pounds’ worth of contracts to suppliers of personal protective equipment during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
Two groups brought the legal action against the Department of Health and Social Care, alleging its use of the “High Priority Lane,” reserved for referrals from lawmakers and senior officials, gave unfair advantage to some suppliers “because of who they knew, not what they could deliver.”
The contracts included one worth over 340 million pounds ($464m) to pest control firm PestFix and another worth some 252 million pounds ($344m) to the hedge fund Ayanda Capital.
French football Paris Saint-Germain called off its upcoming trip to the Gulf region on due to coronavirus concerns.
PSG was scheduled to fly to Qatar for a three-day training camp starting Sunday and then play a friendly match in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on January 19.
“In view of the health situation in France, Paris Saint-Germain has decided to postpone the Qatar Winter Tour 2022 to protect the health of its staff and players,” PSG said. The club is owned by the Qatari state.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has admitted to attending a garden party at his Downing Street residence during a coronavirus lockdown in May 2020, in breach of his government’s own pandemic rules.
Addressing the United Kingdom’s Parliament, Johnson said he wanted to “apologise” to the British people for his actions but deflected opposition demands for his resignation.
“I know the rage they feel with me over the government I lead when they think that in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules,” he told the House of Commons during his weekly Prime Minister’s Questions session.
Read more here.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a parliamentary reckoning about another alleged breach of coronavirus rules that has prompted damning headlines and calls for him to quit.
Johnson is under fierce pressure to say whether he attended a boozy gathering in the garden of his Downing Street residence in May 2020, amid the country’s first strict lockdown.
“If the prime minister knowingly attended a party I don’t see how he can survive, having accepted resignations for far less,” Conservative Member of Parliament Nigel Mills told the BBC.
Morocco is considering wage rises for health workers and tax incentives to attract foreign investors and doctors to plug shortages in the health system as it battles the pandemic and expands medical insurance, its health minister said.
Hospitals have an “acute shortage” of 32,000 doctors and 65,000 nurses, a number “that is difficult to rapidly train because only 1,200 doctors graduate a year”, Health Minister Khalid Ait Taleb told Reuters news agency in an interview.
The government has also allowed doctors with a permit to practice abroad to work in Morocco.
Germany’s president has called for a thorough debate over plans for compulsory coronavirus vaccinations in the country, saying such a drastic measure needs to be comprehensively justified.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz has backed calls for a vaccine mandate and legislators are expected to begin debating a bill later this month.
“The exceptional situation of a pandemic increases the pressure for the state to act, but it doesn’t replace the requirement to weigh up arguments and balance interests,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at the beginning of a roundtable debate with citizens on the issue.
“A vaccine mandate means a debate mandate,” he added.
Steinmeier, whose role is largely ceremonial, said he would not take sides in the debate but urged those involved to have “respect for other positions, but also respect for facts and reason that must be and remain our common currency”.
About 100 Rwandans have crossed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in recent days, saying they are fleeing the country because of COVID-19 vaccination rules, local sources said.
Small groups of Rwandans, travelling by canoe, have landed on the southern edge of Idjwi island in Lake Kivu which straddles the border, Karongo Kalaja, the administrator of Idjwi, told the AFP news agency.
“We have already recorded at least 100” arrivals, Kalaja said.
The authorities are interviewing them to find out why they crossed, he said.
Ireland should be in a position to start easing restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 from next month once the number of people requiring critical care remains stable, a senior minister said.
The daily increase in the number of hospital admissions has also slowed in recent days and Communications Minister Eamon Ryan said if the critical care figure holds steady, the economy would emerge from the current curbs.
“I am very confident we will be able to ease restrictions as we go into February. The science says that this will be a short wave, if we can get through it with our hospital numbers down, then we will be able to start lifting restrictions,” Ryan, the leader of the junior coalition Green Party, told reporters.
The Biden administration is increasing federal support for COVID-19 testing for schools in a bid to keep them open amid the Omicron surge.
The White House announced that the administration is making a dedicated stream of five million rapid tests and five million lab-based PCR tests available to schools starting this month to ease supply shortages and promote the safe reopening of schools.
That is on top of more than $10bn devoted to school-based tests authorised in the COVID-19 relief law and about $130bn earmarked in that law to keep kids in school.
Saudi Arabia has registered its highest daily number of new COVID-19 infections so far, health ministry data showed, breaking through 5,000 cases.
Cases in the kingdom, which has the Gulf’s largest population at about 35 million, have risen dramatically since the start of the year with the global spread of the Omicron variant.
The kingdom on Wednesday reported 5,362 new cases and two deaths, rising above the previous peak of daily infections in June 2020 of 4,919.
A package of tightened restrictions aimed at containing the spread of the coronavirus went into effect in Sweden.
Bars and restaurants licensed to sell alcohol now have to close by 11pm, groups at such establishments are limited to eight people and can only be served sitting down.
Adults have been explicitly encouraged to limit close indoor contact with people from other households and to avoid larger gatherings and celebrations. Indoor public events also face limits on attendance numbers.
The measures are to remain in place until further notice and will be reviewed every 14 days.
Russia has so far recorded 698 cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant and will prepare new measures by the end of the week to combat its spread, Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova said.
Omicron has pushed COVID-19 cases to record highs in parts of Western Europe and the United States, but the variant has been slower to hit Russia, where daily COVID cases have fallen from a peak of 41,335 registered in early November.
Data compiled by the Reuters COVID-19 tracker show Russia’s reported pandemic death toll stands at more than 666,000, the second-highest in the world behind the US.
Speaking to President Vladimir Putin at a televised government meeting, Golikova said Russia could see COVID-19 cases increase “several-fold” in light of the new variant.
“We are preparing additional measures for an urgent response,” she said. “The proposal will be formulated by the end of the week.”
Austria’s daily new coronavirus infections have risen to a new record of 18,427, newspaper Kronen Zeitung reported as cases have been surging because of the spread of the extremely contagious Omicron variant.
Daily figures are due to be published later on Wednesday.
Hungary’s daily tally of new COVID-19 cases jumped to 7,883 from 5,270 reported a week earlier, but the number of patients treated in hospital declined over the week, the government said.
The government said 29 percent of the new infections were caused by the new Omicron variant, but some private labs have reported much higher figures.
In Hungary, a country of 10 million, 40,083 people have died of COVID-19. There are 2,758 coronavirus patients in hospitals now, including 257 on ventilators.
French Health Minister Olivier Veran said it was too early to say if the current, Omicron-fuelled wave of the new coronavirus had peaked in the country, which is currently reporting record numbers of daily new cases.
“We still need a bit of time to work out whether or not we are near a current COVID peak,” Veran told France Info radio, adding that the more dangerous Delta variant was declining in France.
French health authorities on Tuesday reported 368,149 new coronavirus cases, the highest single-day tally of the pandemic. And the seven-day moving average of new cases, which smoothes out reporting irregularities, rose to a record level of 283,394.
Kyrgyzstan’s healthcare ministry said it had confirmed the Central Asian nation’s first cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Daily coronavirus infections in Bulgaria reached a record high of 7,062, largely fuelled by the highly contagious Omicron variant, official data showed.
New cases, on the rise since the beginning of the year, surpassed a previous peak set in late October, when the European Union’s least vaccinated member state grappled with the Delta variant.
The virus has killed 89 people in the past 24 hours in the Balkan country, according to official figures, bringing the total death toll to 31,761.
More than 5,200 people were in hospitals, including 580 in intensive care. In the capital, Sofia, planned operations have been suspended as hospitals prepared to expand wards for COVID-19 patients.
Health authorities have said a surge in hospitalisations may mean new restrictions.
Germany reported 80,430 new coronavirus infections, the highest recorded in a single day since the pandemic began, as the contagious Omicron variant rips through a population with lower vaccination rates than some other parts of Europe.
The previous daily record, on November 26, was more than 76,000.
Germany’s tally of infections now stands at 7,661,811. The death toll also rose by 384 on Wednesday to reach 114,735.
The seven-day incidence rate, a key yardstick in deciding coronavirus policy, has ticked up steadily since the start of the year, to stand at 407.5 cases per 100,000 people on Wednesday, versus 387.9 the day before.
Japan’s western prefecture of Osaka expects to record about 1,700 new coronavirus cases, roughly tripling from a day earlier in their first rise beyond 1,000 since mid-September, public broadcaster NHK said.
The prefecture had 613 cases on Tuesday, NHK added.
The Philippine government issued an order on Wednesday that would ban unvaccinated residents of Metro Manila from public transport, amid a new surge of COVID-19 cases.
The order was signed by President Rodrigo Duterte’s transport secretary, Arthur Tugade, on Tuesday, and was released to the public on Wednesday.
The order applies to all domestic travel to, from and within Metro Manila via all forms of public transport.
Read more here.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said from India to Nepal and Bangladesh, hospitals are reporting “alarming increases” in infections, including a 2,013 percent increase in India in the past month.
“This latest surge of COVID-19 spells immense danger for millions of people and health systems across South Asia. Omicron is spreading fast and while vaccination rates have been soaring, after such tragic loss of life last year, fear is mounting of record infection rates,” Udaya Regmi, head of IFRC in South Asia, said in a statement sent to Al Jazeera.
Tennis star Novak Djokovic has admitted an incorrect answer on his Australian entry documents, breaching the country’s strict laws on reporting recent travel.
Djokovic said his travel declaration was filled in by his support team, which made an “administrative mistake” when they ticked the “no” box in response to whether he had travelled elsewhere in the 14 days before arriving in Australia.
Giving false or misleading information in the form is an offence, carrying a maximum penalty of 12 months in prison, and a fine of up to 6,600 Australian dollars ($4,730) and can lead to cancellation of the offender’s visa.
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Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam said the city could soon feel the negative effects of tougher quarantine curbs on aircrew, with the expected decline of cargo traffic and flow of supply of goods.
In a speech before the “patriots-only” Legislative Council, Lam said Hong Kong already had the strictest measures against imported COVID-19 infections and it was difficult to tighten them further.
Reuters is reporting that more than 30 officials from major South Korean companies who attended the giant CES tech trade show in Las Vegas last week tested positive for COVID-19 while in the US.
About 20 officials from Samsung Electronics and six at SK Group, parent of energy firm SK Innovation and chipmaker SK Hynix, were among those who tested positive for the virus after attending CES, the sources said.
Hyundai Heavy Industries also said six of its employees who attended tested positive and were quarantined, and some have been released since.
South Korea’s health authority said its COVID-19 cases bounced back to above 4,000 for the first time in six days, possibly due to the Omicron variant.
At least 4,388 new cases were reported, including 4,007 local infections, raising the total caseload to 674,868, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.
According to the Yonhap news agency, the government will assess later on Wednesday the risk level of the pandemic and decide on possible revisions to the current social distancing rules.
At least 14 million residents of the city of Tianjin in China have started a new round of COVID-19 testing to block the spread of Omicron.
Tianjin reported 33 domestically transmitted coronavirus infections with confirmed symptoms for Tuesday, up from 10 a day earlier, according to the country’s coronavirus monitor.
The city ordered a half-day off for employees at companies and other institutions on Wednesday and required them to remain at home to comply with the city’s second round of mass testing, Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, China’s city of Shenzhen also reported four new cases of the virus. As of Monday, the city had completed more than 22 million tests in four days as the city also tries to contain the spread of COVID.
In Germany, the country’s trade association has warned of significant supply chain disruptions due to the rapid spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant of the coronavirus, but said a long-term collapse of the supply chains was unlikely.
“There is no risk of collapse, but of a massive disruption of the supply chain – at least temporarily,” BGA trade association president Dirk Jandura was quoted on Wednesday by Funke newspaper group as saying.
German industry has been hit by supply shortages of microchips and other components, while rising COVID-19 cases are clouding the outlook for retailers at the start of 2022.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced on Wednesday that the country will be rolling out its COVID booster shots for free, according to the Jakarta Post.
The government had initially planned to ask the majority of Indonesia’s 270 million inhabitants to pay for the boosters out of their own pockets.
There have been concerns that the rollout could exacerbate vaccine inequity across the country. Only about 117 million Indonesians have been fully vaccinated out of a population of more than 270 million since the campaign began on January 13 last year.
Read all the updates from January 11 here.
Al Jazeera tracks what happened where and when as UK officials face pressure over litany of controversial gatherings.
Policy covers all domestic public transport to, from and within Metro Manila, but critics say order is discriminatory.
Are quarantine rule changes based on the best health science or are they being governed by concern for the economy?
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