Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city, has gone back into lockdown as a “circuit-breaker” to try to halt the spread of a hotel quarantine-linked outbreak. The city will go back into Stage 4 restrictions (Melbourne residents are only too familiar with these) for five days.
For more details, see the Australian coverage here:
More from Europe, and within the EU, significant tensions are emerging:
Czech lawmakers on Thursday voted down a move by the populist minority government to extend a state of emergency aimed at stemming soaring coronavirus infections.
The move came as neighbouring Germany said it would ban travel from Czech border regions as well as Austria’s Tyrol over a troubling surge in infections of more contagious coronavirus variants.
Czech billionaire prime minister Andrej Babis told parliament he needed to extend the state of emergency past 14 February.
Imposed on 30 September, the state of emergency allows the government to deploy the army and firefighters to help fight the virus or to prolong the closure of most shops.
With only 48 of 106 lawmakers present voting in favour, Babis will now have to look for other legal avenues to introduce new measures or to keep existing ones in place.
“We will make history as a country that demobilised in the middle of a war,” vice-premier and interior minister Jan Hamacek told lawmakers.
Health minister Jan Blatny warned the epidemic situation would worsen within two weeks as a result and hit the country’s overburdened hospitals hard.
An EU member of 10.7 million people, the Czech Republic has registered some of the world’s highest coronavirus infection rates on a per capita basis in recent months.
It has seen over a million confirmed cases and almost 18,000 deaths as of Thursday.
Also on Thursday, the government decided to shut off three worst-hit districts, deploying almost 600 police officers to carry out random checks on their borders.
The government has struggled to curb infections as more and more citizens ignore restrictions that have been in place on and off since March 2020.
Defying government-imposed closures, some pubs and restaurants as well as ski resorts have opened up for business.
A poll published on Wednesday showed widespread public scepticism about the pandemic, with fewer than half of Czechs saying they would stay at home if they showed the symptoms of Covid-19.
Some 45% said they thought the pandemic was just a “media bubble” and only 18% of respondents in the poll commissioned by the World Health Organization and a Czech medical society said the virus posed a high risk.
Germany will ban travel from Czech border regions as well as Austria’s Tyrol over a troubling surge in infections of more contagious coronavirus variants, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said Thursday.
“The states of Bavaria and Saxony today asked the government to class Tyrol and the border regions of the Czech Republic as virus mutation areas, and to implement border controls,” Seehofer told the Sueddeutsche daily.
“That has been agreed with the (German) chancellor and the vice-chancellor,” he said, adding that the new curbs will begin on Sunday.
The interior ministry said on Twitter that checkpoints would be put in place, though certain exceptions were expected, including to maintain commercial links.
Germany in late January banned most travellers from countries classed as so-called mutation areas or places hardest hit by new, more contagious coronavirus variants.
Only a handful of exceptions are allowed to enter Germany from these countries, including returning Germans and essential workers such as doctors.
Europe’s biggest economy has halved its daily infections rate after more than two months of painful curbs shuttering most shops, schools and restaurants.
But fears are growing that the positive trend could be compromised by travellers from border regions which are reporting sky-high case rates.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is in particular concerned by the South African variant circulating in Tyrol and the British variant in the Czech Republic.
Extending a partial shutdown into March, Merkel warned late Wednesday that “given that the experts say that the mutated virus can get the upper hand over the current virus, the timespan between now and mid-March is existential”.
She had also telephoned Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to voice her worries over the situation in Tyrol, she revealed on Wednesday.
Austria has already ordered restrictions to stop people leaving the mountainous Tyrol region, which Kurz says has been hit by the biggest outbreak in Europe of the South African variant.
Anyone leaving the region must now show a negative coronavirus test, with fines of up to 1,450 euros (US$1,750) for anyone who fails to comply.
But Bavarian state premier Markus Soeder, whose region borders Tyrol, said he feared that “a second Ischgl” was in the making – referring to the Austrian ski region which became a coronavirus superspreader hotspot early on in the pandemic.
Tyrol “is not taking the development seriously,” he said.
Meanwhile Saxony state, which lies next to the Czech Republic, said it was imposing tougher checks from Saturday with restrictions to also affect cross-border workers.
Only workers in essential sectors – such as doctors or employees in elderly care homes – would be allowed to travel in.
But they would be required to take virus tests daily and commit to travel only between their homes and workplaces.
The Czech government meanwhile said Thursday that it would block off three hard-hit districts, including two on the German border, stopping people living in these zones from leaving and others from entering.
Czech public health officials want the measure to be in force for three weeks, although there are likely to be exceptions.
To Australia, where your correspondent sits…
But all eyes are on the state of Victoria, where an outbreak from hotel quarantine has now reached 13 and there are strong rumours of an impending snap lockdown. The state’s cabinet is still meeting…
New Zealand’s first Covid-19 vaccines will arrive in the country ahead of schedule in a win for the government, which has been criticised for being too slow to procure them.
In a surprise announcement on Friday, the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said hundreds of thousands of vials of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine would be arriving early, and vaccinations for border staff would begin next Saturday.
Originally the government had said the vaccines were expected to arrive at the end of March.
We reported earlier on Brazil reporting 54,742 additional confirmed Covid cases in the past 24 hours, along with 1,351 deaths. That brings the total number of cases in the country to 9.7 million, and the death toll to 236,000.
In further news, Reuters reports:
A coronavirus variant identified in the Brazilian Amazon may be three times more contagious but early analysis suggests vaccines are still effective against it, the country’s health minister said on Thursday, without providing evidence for the claims.
Under pressure as the variant hammers the jungle city of Manaus with a devastating second wave of infections, health minister Eduardo Pazuello sought to reassure lawmakers that the surge of recent months was unexpected but coming under control.
He also told a senate hearing that Brazil would vaccinate half its eligible population by June and the rest by the end of the year, an ambitious target as the country has barely guaranteed doses for half the population.
Brazil began immunizations with vaccines made by China’s Sinovac Biotech and Britain’s AstraZeneca about three weeks ago. Pazuello did not explain how their effectiveness against the Manaus variant was analyzed.
“Thank God, we had clear news from the analysis that the vaccines still have an effect against this variant,” Pazuello said. “But it is more contagious. By our analysis, it is three time more contagious.”
The Health Ministry, which has not provided information about any such analysis, did not immediately respond to a request for more information.
The Butantan institute in Sao Paulo, which has partnered with Sinovac to test and produce the Chinese vaccine, said in a statement that it had begun studies regarding the Manaus variant but would not have a conclusion for two weeks.
The Fiocruz biomedical center in Rio de Janeiro, which has partnered with AstraZeneca to fill and finish doses of its vaccine developed with Oxford University, said it is studying its efficacy against the Amazon variant, sent samples to Oxford and is awaiting results.
The US has finalised an order for 200m more vaccine doses – 100m doses each from Pfizer and Moderna – to be delivered by the end of July, Joe Biden confirmed on Monday.
Speaking at the National Institutes of Health on Thursday, the president touted his team’s early efforts to expand access to coronavirus vaccines, and criticised Donald Trump’s strategy for distributing vaccines, saying the last administration did not order enough doses or mobilise enough people to administer shots.
“My predecessor, to be very blunt about it, did not do his job,” Biden said.
Biden also celebrated that the US is on track to exceed his goal of 100m vaccine doses distributed over his first 100 days in office, but he emphasised Americans still had to take precautions to limit the spread of the virus.
“Mask up, America. Mask up,” Biden said.
To further troubling news of a different, potential epidemic. The Democratic Republic of Congo is trying to contain an Ebola outbreak.
A second person has died of Ebola in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo following a resurgence of the disease, three months after authorities declared the end of the country’s latest outbreak, the WHO said on Thursday.
The second victim was a female 60-year-old farm worker who died on Wednesday, the World Health Organisation’s country office said.
The woman was linked to the first fatality in the Biena health zone of North Kivu province, it added.
That first case involved a woman, the wife of an Ebola survivor, who died on February 3.
The WHO’s Africa office said at the time that the first victim had died in an area that had previously been one of the epicentres of the latest outbreak, near the town of Butembo.
Since the West African Ebola crisis of 2013-16 – which left 11,300 dead across the region – the WHO has eyed each new outbreak with great concern, treating the most recent Congolese epidemic as an international health emergency.
DR Congo had on November 18 declared that the epidemic, which lasted nearly six months in the northwestern province of Equateur, was over. It was the country’s eleventh Ebola outbreak, claiming 55 lives out of 130 cases.
The last person declared recovered from Ebola in Equateur was on October 16.
The widespread use of vaccinations, which were administered to more than 40,000 people, helped curb the disease.
The return of the virus in the country’s northeast – a region plagued by violence between armed groups – comes as the vast African country is also fighting its own Covid-19 outbreak, with 681 deaths to date.
I’d like to return to the comments from the director general of the WHO, because they are critical in our understanding of the global pandemic’s origins.
The director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, appears to have rejected comments made on Tuesday by the team of experts studying the origins of the Covid-19 virus after they said it was “extremely unlikely” that it leaked from a Wuhan virology laboratory and “isn’t a hypothesis we suggest implies further study”.
Tedros said the team was still working on its final report and wished to clarify that all hypotheses remained open and required further study.
He told WHO member states in a briefing on Thursday:
As you know, the independent expert team to study the origins of the Covid-19 virus has completed its trip to China. This was an international team comprising experts from Australia, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Qatar, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Viet Nam.
The team also includes experts from WHO, FAO and OIE. I want to start by thanking all members of the international team for their work. This has been a very important scientific exercise in very difficult circumstances.
The expert team is still working on its final report and we look forward to receiving both the report and a full briefing. Some questions have been raised as to whether some hypotheses have been discarded. I want to clarify that all hypotheses remain open and require further study.
Good morning/afternoon/evening, Ben Doherty in Sydney, Australia with our continuing live coverage of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Thanks for your company today. Comments, correspondence and queries always welcome: you can reach me at email@example.com or on twitter @BenDohertyCorro.
To begin, a summary of recent developments from around the world:
- US President Joe Biden has confirmed the US has ordered 200m more doses of coronavirus vaccine. He said “my predecessor did not do his job” in scaling up the country’s vaccine rollout and urged Americans to “mask up”.
- The Brazilian Amazon variant of the coronavirus disease may be “three times” as contagious as other strains, the country’s health minister has said.
- The director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, appears to have rejected comments made on Tuesday by the team of experts studying the origins of the Covid-19 virus after they said it was “extremely unlikely” that it leaked from a Wuhan virology laboratory and “isn’t a hypothesis we suggest implies further study”. Tedros said “I want to clarify that all hypotheses remain open and require further study”.
- Portugal has extended a lockdown until 1 March or perhaps later to tackle its worst surge of Covid-19 infections since the pandemic began.
- People in the US who have received a full course of Covid vaccine can skip the standard two week quarantine following exposure to someone whose infected as long as they remain asymptomatic, health officials have suggested.
- Ireland, which, according to the latest official figures, has recorded 3,794 Covid related deaths, is set to extend its lockdown until April, prime minister Micheal Martin has said.
- Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has defended her government’s decision to extend Germany’s lockdown into March by highlighting the “very real danger” of a third wave driven by Covid mutations.
- The Philippines is poised to receive 600,000 doses this month of Sinovac Biotech’s vaccine donated by China, a portion of which will be used to inoculate military personnel.