Japan confirms cases of U.K. coronavirus variant

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The United States will require airline passengers from the United Kingdom to test negative for COVID-19 before their flight, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced late Thursday.

The U.S. is the latest country to announce new travel restrictions because of a new variant of the coronavirus that is spreading in Britain and elsewhere.

Airline passengers from the U.K. will need to get negative COVID-19 tests within three days of their trip and provide the results to the airline, the CDC said in a statement. The agency said the order will be signed Friday and go into effect on Monday.

“If a passenger chooses not to take a test, the airline must deny boarding to the passenger,” the CDC said in its statement.

The agency said because of travel restrictions in place since March, air travel to the U.S. from the U.K. is already down by 90 per cent.

Last weekend, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new variant of the coronavirus seemed to spread more easily than earlier ones and was moving rapidly through England. But Johnson stressed “there’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,” or that vaccines will be less effective against it.

WATCH | Pfizer, Moderna vaccines can be modified to tackle variants, expert says:

According to infectious disease specialist Dr. Zain Chagla, vaccines that use mRNA technology can be reverse engineered quite quickly to take on variants — such as the recent U.K. variant of the coronavirus. 1:42

This week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said three airlines with flights from London to New York — British Airways, Delta and Virgin Atlantic — had agreed to require passengers to take a COVID-19 test before getting on the plane. United Airlines on Thursday agreed to do the same for its flights to Newark, N.J.

Britain has been under considerable pressure since word of the new variant of the virus was made public. Some 40 countries imposed travel bans on Britain, leaving the island nation increasingly isolated.

On Christmas Day, about 1,000 British soldiers were clearing a backlog of truck drivers stuck in southeast England after France briefly closed its border to the U.K. then demanded coronavirus tests from all amid fears of the new virus variant.

Even as an estimated 4,000 international truck drivers spent yet another day cooped up in their cabs, some progress was evident Friday, with traffic around the English Channel port of Dover moving in an orderly fashion toward the extra ferries that were put on to make the short crossing across to Calais in northern France.

Meanwhile, Russian authorities have ordered those arriving from the U.K. to quarantine for two weeks, after the country suspended direct flights from the U.K. earlier this week. 

The order from the Rospotrebnadzor sanitary safety agency posted Friday on the portal of official information obliges all those travelling from the U.K. to remain in isolation for 14 days after their arrival in Russia. The measure is effective starting Saturday.


What’s happening in Canada

As of Friday morning, Canada’s COVID-19 case count stood at 535,243, with 76,459 of those cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 14,720.

The first shipment carrying doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Canada on Thursday afternoon, just over 24 hours after Health Canada authorized the vaccine for use in people over the age of 18.

The shipment contains a portion of the 168,000 doses expected to arrive before the end of the year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted, along with a photo of a FedEx plane being unloaded at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

“This is another big step in our national vaccine rollout,” Trudeau said. “But it doesn’t mean we can let up just yet. The vaccine won’t help you if you get sick now.”

Canada on Thursday also expanded enhanced screening and monitoring measures for travellers arriving from South Africa, citing the rise of a more infectious variant of the coronavirus in that country, similar to one that has emerged in the U.K.

This followed a move on Wednesday by Trudeau to extend to Jan. 6 a ban on passenger flights arriving from the U.K., citing the variant.

No cases of the variants have been found in Canada so far, Health Canada said in a release, noting it had tested over 25,000 samples. “All travellers who have been in the United Kingdom or South Africa within the period of 14 days before the day on which they seek entry into Canada will be subject to secondary screening and enhanced measures,” Health Canada said.

Those measures include “increased scrutiny of quarantine plans,” the release said.

Canada also updated travel advisories for both the U.K. and South Africa to advise extra caution. Health officials continue to advise against all non-essential international travel.

WATCH | Christmas gatherings threaten to spike COVID-19 numbers:

Despite pleas from premiers and the prime minister for people to stay home, Christmas gatherings threaten to spike COVID-19 numbers that are already breaking records in Ontario and Quebec. 2:31

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise across Canada, with the two most populous provinces both posting record highs in new cases on Thursday.

In Ontario, where a provincewide lockdown is set to take effect after midnight on Boxing Day, Premier Doug Ford urged people to stay home.

“I know the lockdown starts on December 26 — but I have to tell you, folks, every time you take a trip it puts people in jeopardy,” he said. “So please, as of right now, please stay at home when you can.”

Ontario on Thursday reported 2,447 new cases of coronavirus and 49 additional deaths, bringing the provincial death toll to 4,278. Hospitalizations stood at 967, with 277 COVID-19 patients in Ontario’s intensive care units, according to provincial data.

Meanwhile, Quebec reported a single-day record of 2,349 new cases on Thursday. Health officials in the province also reported 46 deaths, bringing the provincial death toll to 7,913. Hospitalizations stood at 1,052 with 146 people in ICUs, according to a provincial database.

Projections released by a government research centre — the Institut national d’excellence en santé et services sociaux (INESSS) — showed hospitals in Montreal are rapidly using up the space they have allotted for COVID-19 patients and could run out of beds by Jan. 12.

The projections, released weekly, noted that hospitalizations have more than doubled in the Montreal area over the past month.

WATCH | Why some families are having a giftless Christmas:

Some families are keeping Christmas simple and spending less because of stores closed by lockdowns and limits on gatherings, while others just can’t afford holiday celebrations or gifts. 2:00

With COVID-19 cases on the rise, communities across Canada have made adjustments to traditional Christmas celebrations. Here’s a look at how some in Canada are celebrating this year.


What’s happening around the world

As of 3 p.m. ET on Friday, more than 79.7 million coronavirus cases had been reported worldwide, with more than 44.9 million cases considered recovered or resolved, according to a running tally kept by Johns Hopkins University researchers. The global death toll stood at more than 1.7 million.

In the Americas, U.S. President Donald Trump spent his Christmas Eve golfing in Florida after making a last-minute demand that threatens to blow up a massive COVID relief and government funding bill and force a government shutdown in the midst of the pandemic. Failure to agree on the bill could deny cheques to millions of Americans on the brink.

Trump’s departure to his Palm Beach golf club came as Washington was still reeling over his surprise, eleventh-hour request that an end-of-year spending bill that congressional leaders spent months negotiating give most Americans $2,000 US COVID relief cheques — far more than the $600 members of his own party had agreed to.

The idea was swiftly rejected by House Republicans during a rare Christmas Eve session, leaving the proposal in limbo.

WATCH | Is one COVID-19 vaccine better than another?

Infectious disease physicians answer viewer questions about COVID-19 vaccines, including if one is better than another and how vaccinations will impact the health-care system. 6:35

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro used his Christmas message to cast more doubt on a coronavirus vaccine purchased by one of the country’s states from Chinese biopharmaceutical firm Sinovac.

In his live broadcast on social media Thursday, Bolsonaro said “the efficacy of that vaccine of Sao Paulo seems to be very low,” though he cited nothing specific. Sao Paulo health authorities have not presented complete trial results a week after announcing that there were encouraging Phase 3 studies on the shot’s effectiveness.

In Europe, Queen Elizabeth released her annual Christmas message in which she acknowledged the “difficult and unpredictable times” while paying tribute to front-line workers and young people who have helped their communities during the pandemic.

With infection rates soaring in recent weeks and many hospitals nearing their capacities, the British government on Dec. 19 cancelled Christmas gatherings and festive shopping for millions in a bid to control the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis made a Christmas Day plea for authorities to make COVID-19 vaccines available to all, insisting that the first in line should be the most vulnerable and needy, regardless of who holds the patents for the shots.

“Vaccines for everybody, especially for the most vulnerable and needy,” who should be first in line, Francis said in off-the-cuff remarks from his prepared text, calling the development of such vaccines a “light of hope” for the world.

Pope Francis delivers his traditional Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi speech from inside the Hall of Blessings at the Vatican on Friday. (Vatican Media/Handout/Reuters)

Amid a surge of coronavirus infections this fall in Italy, Francis broke with tradition for Christmas. Instead of delivering his Urbi et Orbi speech — Latin for “to the city and to the world” — from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, he read it from inside a cavernous hall at the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, flanked by two Christmas trees with blinking lights.

In Asia, Japan’s Health Ministry has confirmed the country’s first cases of infection with the new variant of the coronavirus that was identified in Britain.

The five people arrived between Dec. 18 and Dec. 21, before Japan stepped up border control on Friday for entrants from Britain. A man in his 60s developed fatigue, but the other four were without symptoms. Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said they were sent to quarantine straight from the airports.

Christmas Day has brought South Korea its biggest daily increase in coronavirus infections of the pandemic as officials urged for citizen vigilance to help curb a viral surge that has worsened hospitalization and deaths.

The 1,241 new confirmed cases reported Friday raised the country’s total to 54,770. Officials said 17 more people had died from COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours, bringing the death toll to 773.

A man reads a book while waiting in line at a coronavirus testing site that is temporarily set up in front of a railway station in Seoul on Friday. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

Authorities in China’s northeastern port city of Dalian are testing millions of residents after seven new coronavirus cases were reported there in the last 24 hours.

The cluster that has emerged in recent days has grown to 12 cases. In five neighbourhood divisions, authorities have shut schools and public spaces and are restricting anyone but essential workers from leaving their residential compounds.

In the Middle East, bells rang out around Bethlehem on Friday as the traditional birthplace of Jesus celebrated Christmas Day. But the closure of Israel’s international airport to foreign tourists, along with Palestinian restrictions banning intercity travel in the areas the Palestinian Authority administers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, kept visitors away.

Volunteers from a Catholic men’s group distribute presents to children on Christmas Eve from the back of a motorized rickshaw in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem on Dec. 24. With the coronavirus dampening Christmas celebrations this year, the group organized gifts to families free of charge. (Maya Alleruzzo/The Associated Press)

The Israeli government will impose its third nationwide lockdown on Sunday to halt the spread of the coronavirus. The restrictions, which will last two weeks, include the shutdown of most non-essential businesses, limitations on gatherings and movement from people’s homes and reduced public transit.

Turkey’s health minister said on Friday that as of next Monday all passengers coming into the country will have to provide proof of negative tests for coronavirus carried out within 72 hours of their arrival.

Passengers who fail to provide a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test result will not be allowed to board planes to Turkey, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said.

In Africa, at least 15 people have died in recent weeks on the South African side of the Beitbridge border with Zimbabwe in lengthy queues that have been slowed by coronavirus screening, television news channel eNCA said on Friday.

The Health Ministry, Department of Home Affairs and South African police did not respond immediately to Reuters’s requests on Friday for confirmation of fatalities that local media outlets attributed to exhaustion and ill health owing to a lack of facilities while waiting to cross the border, sometimes for days.

A pedestrian passes a Christmas tree in New Bond Street in London earlier this week. The U.S. is among the latest countries to announce new restrictions on travellers from the U.K. over a new variant of the coronavirus. (Alberto Pezzali/The Associated Press)

Morocco announced it has acquired 65 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines from China’s Sinopharm and Britain’s AstraZeneca, as the north African kingdom prepares to launch a COVID-19 vaccination program that aims to immunize 80 per cent of the country’s adult population.

The country has reported the second-highest number of virus infections and deaths in Africa, after South Africa.

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