Coronavirus latest: US new cases and hospital admissions stabilise as 1,600 more die

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Updated at 12/20/2020, 10:13:58 PM BST

Ryan McMorrow

Shopping sites delivering from China are rushing to build their own global freight networks, as the coronavirus pandemic and new US shipping rules threaten the supply of packages to the west in the run-up to Christmas.

Stung by rising costs after a new postage deal was struck last year between the US and the United Nations’ postal body, bargain sites such as Wish and AliExpress have invested heavily to handle their own flow of goods.

“Logistics has become paramount,” said San Francisco-based Wish, which has merchants based in China, and this month raised $1.1bn in its initial public offering on the Nasdaq exchange.

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Singapore health authorities are investigating 13 new cases among incoming passengers who were serving out their quarantine period at a hotel.

The cases, which have genetic similarities, were among incoming passengers from Bahrain, Canada, Indonesia, Myanmar, Netherlands, Philippines, South Korea, United Arab Emirates, the UK and the US.

“This suggests that these cases were likely infected from a similar source,” the health ministry said in a statement.

The 500 staff at the Mandarin Orchard are being tested and restaurants and other facilities at the hotel have been closed.

Simeon Kerr

Saudi Arabia has suspended international flights for at least a week to protect the kingdom against the new strain of coronavirus.

The interior ministry said late on Sunday that the week’s suspension could be extended for another week pending clarity on the virus. Land borders and sea ports will also be closed over the same time frame.

Foreign planes still in the kingdom will be allowed to leave the country, according to the report carried by the official state news agency.

The government also ordered anyone who had returned from a European country affected by the new strain since December 8 to isolate at home for two weeks and take a Covid-19 test every five days.

Others who have returned from any country where the new strain has appeared must also take a test.

Kuwait earlier on Sunday barred flights from the UK over fears of the new strain.

Vials of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine are stored — at a temperature of minus 80C — in a freezer at the Roseland Community Hospital in Chicago. The hospital said it has began vaccinating its frontline healthcare workers

Benjamin Parkin

Coronavirus has spread through India, from its pulsating metropolises to remote Himalayan villages.

But, almost a year after India recorded its first case, one part of the country remains untouched by the virus: Lakshadweep, a lush archipelago 200km off its southern coast in the Arabian Sea.

It has not recorded a single case of Covid-19 and life in the island paradise, with a population of fewer than 100,000 people, continues largely undisturbed. Children go to school, families and friends congregate for weddings and islanders are relaxed about wearing masks or social distancing.

It is a far cry from life on the mainland. India has recorded 10m cases, the world’s second-highest tally, and a strict lockdown has led to months of disruption with many children still not in school and public gatherings limited in many states.

Lakshadweep, India’s smallest territory, maintains strict protocols to keep the virus away.

No outside visitors have been allowed through the duration of the pandemic, and islanders can only travel to and from the mainland for essential business after doing rounds of quarantine on both sides.

George Steer

Britain’s courier companies face one of their biggest logistical challenges this Christmas with a surge in demand for deliveries that in a normal year would have overwhelmed them.

But after a vast hiring spree, investment in more warehouse space and the deployment of thousands of extra vans, bosses of the big groups say they have coped rather than crumbled in tackling the flood of orders.

At the busiest time of the year, the pandemic-induced online boom has put extra pressure on the main groups, which control 75 per cent of the UK’s parcel delivery market in terms of revenues and volumes.

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Song Jung-a

South Korea’s exports continued to rise in December on strong global demand for computer chips and mobile devices, although the country’s largest wave of coronavirus infection is damping domestic consumption.

Exports rose 1.2 per cent year on year to $30.8bn in the first 20 days of December, with overseas shipments of semiconductor and wireless devices up 26.4 per cent and 38.3 per cent respectively, according to the Korea Customs Office.

The country reported a 4 per cent increase in November exports.

The positive data came as South Korea struggled to contain a surge in virus infections.

The country reported 926 new cases on Monday, raising the total caseload to 50,591, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. Its death toll increased by 24 to 698.

The government is cracking down on violators of distancing rules as it debates introducing stricter anti-virus measures.

Gatherings of more than five people could be banned in the capital Seoul and its surrounding areas this week until early next year, according to city government officials. The government plans to announce new curbs on Tuesday.

About 35 people, including business owners and customers at four entertainment facilities, were criminally charged in Seoul with violating anti-virus restrictions as a result of a late-night crackdown by police on bars and restaurants, according to the city government.

Thomas Hale

The pound dropped and the dollar rose in Asian trading in response to tighter coronavirus lockdown measures in Britain and a lack of progress on a UK-EU Brexit trade deal as well news of a long-awaited US economic relief deal.

The British currency fell 1.2 per cent to $1.3360 on Monday morning in Asia, as strained negotiations over a trade agreement with the EU dragged on with no resolution in sight. 

Sterling’s weakness came as the dollar strengthened after lawmakers in Washington finally reached agreement on a $900bn stimulus deal — the second largest relief bill in US history after the $2.2tn Cares Act in March. The dollar index climbed 0.3 per cent on Monday morning.

Analysts said the focus on talks in Europe would intensify in the wake of the US pandemic relief plan, which would include $600 stimulus cheques for individuals and aid for small businesses.

“While the US fiscal aid consideration had largely played out according to the market’s expectations, a Brexit deal will be one to watch in the short term with prices evidently not positioned for any upset scenario,” said Jingyi Pan, senior market strategist at IG Group.

On Saturday, Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, unveiled tough new restrictions designed to contain a virulent new strain of the coronavirus. At least 10 European countries banned travel from the UK on Sunday and France halted freight transport via the English Channel Tunnel.

Stock markets across Asia were lower on Monday as negative sentiment fed by the new UK virus strain and a resurgence of cases across much of Asia overshadowed the US stimulus deal. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index fell 0.3 per cent while Japan’s Topix was down 0.6 per cent and South Korea’s Kospi index was off 0.4 per cent. 

Judith Evans

Tech start-ups are vying to bring harvesting robots into UK agriculture by perfecting both the artificial intelligence used to pinpoint ripe fruit and the precision engineering to pick it.

Labour problems linked to coronavirus and Brexit have pushed forward development in a growing UK sector trying to solve one of the trickiest problems in agricultural technology.

“We see [robotics] as a tool to enable us to better operate our business and give us information we haven’t had before, which would actually transform the way in which we harvest and grow our crops,” said Charmay Prout, managing director at Flavourfresh, a salad and fruit grower.

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New cases in the US dipped below 200,000 on Sunday, as hospital admissions also showed a slight decline, Covid Tracking Project data show.

There are 113,663 people hospitalised with Covid-19, the data said, down from about 114,000 on Saturday.

Hospital cases in Midwestern states appear to have peaked.

Although other areas of the country are seeing more people seeking care, the aggregate number of people under care has stabilised, CTP said in an analysis.

US states reported a total of 1.8m tests conducted. There were also 1,618 more deaths confirmed.

Jonathan Eley

Next is considering a bid for Philip Green’s Topshop and Topman fashion chains that entered administration at the end of November, most likely in conjunction with a financing partner.

People briefed on the process stressed that no final decision on a bid had been made, and that while Davidson Kempner was the likely choice to act as a negotiating and financing partner, it was not the only option.

Next’s strong balance sheet and well-oiled ecommerce operation have emboldened it as distressed assets have come on to the market at attractive prices owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Dalian had largely returned to normal, allowing events such as a dog show this month

Christian Shepherd

The north-eastern Chinese city of Dalian has advised some residents against non-essential travel, as the government intensifies efforts to avoid fresh winter outbreaks of coronavirus.

Over the weekend, the port city of 6m announced two locally transmitted cases of Covid-19, causing the municipal government to announce a “wartime footing” to prevent further spread of the virus.

Local health officials on Monday closed schools and public spaces in five districts, as well as telling residents to only leave their homes if absolutely necessary.

China’s mass testing, contact tracing and strict quarantines have essentially halted the spread of the virus within its borders, but the central government has repeatedly warned local officials to remain vigilant against a resurgence.

Officials’ fears of a winter relapse have intensified this month after individual, often asymptomatic, cases have been discovered in a handful of locations.

Over the weekend, a National Health Commission official announced that China aims to administer Covid-19 vaccinations to all high-risk individuals by the end of the northern hemisphere spring, as part of an expanding “emergency use” programme.

In July, Dalian officials launched city-wide tests and restrictions on movements in some districts after a cluster of cases was linked to a worker at a local seafood processing company. The city was declared free of the virus in late August.

Alice Hancock

The European Alps make up more than a third of the world’s 2,084 ski resorts, according to data from industry analyst, Laurent Vanat. Its ski season typically produces €28bn in revenues, also about a third of the global total and almost 7 per cent of the overall value of the EU’s tourism market.

But this season will generate nothing close to that. After Covid-19 cut short the busy Easter period during its initial spread through Europe in March — leaving operators and airlines scrambling to repatriate holidaymakers — a third wave looks set to wipe out bookings over Christmas and New Year.

Many resorts across Austria and Italy are closed, while France has said all ski lifts will be shut until January 7. Switzerland has cautiously opened but is under pressure from its European neighbours to close again and with quarantine restrictions in place, international travel is all but banned.

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Breaking news

Canada on Sunday banned flights from the UK, joining several European nations and Israel in concern over a new coronavirus variant that has emerged in south-east England, state broadcaster CBC reported.

CBC News said it obtained a Notice to Airmen issued by Marc Garneau, transport minister, stating that all commercial, private and charter flights transporting passengers from the UK would be suspended indefinitely.

The restriction doesn’t apply to cargo flights.

Mr Garneau “is of the opinion it is necessary for aviation safety and the protection of the public, to prohibit the ... transport of passengers” from the UK, CBC reported the notice as saying.

Jude Webber

Mexican business leaders hope this week to reach a deal with health authorities that would allow them to buy doses of Covid-19 vaccines in addition to those already ordered by the government to administer to their staff.

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has guaranteed free, universal access to Covid vaccines and the government has bought enough doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab to inoculate 125,000 people, starting with health care workers in Mexico City and the Pacific state of Colima.

Business leaders told the government they could support the vaccination effort with their distribution chains and using their facilities as vaccination centres.

“Many companies would be more than able and willing to also pay for the vaccines if this gave them access to additional amounts to be able to administer to their workers,” said Patrick Devlyn, president of the health commission of the CCE, Mexico’s biggest employer lobby.

Although Mexicans should not have to pay for the vaccine, Mr Devlyn said it was “not very productive” to keep higher risk workers off work because of the danger of them catching Covid-19.

A resident wears a mask on a street in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico

“It would be cheaper to pay for the vaccine than to keep them on the bench,” he said, stressing any such plan would be “completely voluntary”. The Pfizer/BioNTech jab costs about $12 per shot, he said.

Mexico City and surrounding areas, home to a quarter of the population, this weekend went back into the highest level of restrictions under which all non-essential services are shuttered because of an alarming rise in hospitalisations.

Mr Devlyn said he expected further talks with Hugo López-Gatell, health undersecretary, and Zoé Robledo, head of the state social security institute, IMSS, on Monday to hammer out the details.

Mexico has pre-ordered the Pfizer/BioNTech, Astra Zeneca/Oxford university and CanSino vaccines and plans to roll-out inoculation over the course of 2021, according to age.

Mr Devlyn said the government was expecting to buy 30m additional vaccine doses in February and the private sector could piggy-back on that order with its own order, which he said could be for as many as 4m people.

New York City on Sunday shut down an illegal club serving drinks to more than 160 people despite coronavirus pandemic-related social distancing regulations.

Five people have been cited for violations of public health emergency orders.

The city’s sheriff’s office, which raided the premises at 2.45am, said club staff barricaded the exits, had no liquor licence, and violated fire and health code violations.

Sotheby’s plans to auction these Adidas running shoes developed with the Meissen porcelain company

George Russell

Moving more art auctions online as a result of the coronavirus pandemic has brought in new and younger customers, according to Sotheby’s.

The UK-based auction house said on Sunday that more than 70 per cent of its auctions were held online in 2020, a sharp increase from the 30 per cent in 2019.

Sotheby’s said 40 per cent of bidders and buyers in online auctions were new customers this year, while the number of buyers under the age of 40 has doubled.

The company said auction sales totalled $3.5bn in 2020, with Asia clients accounting for $932m.

Benjamin Parkin

India has recorded 10m Covid-19 cases, the second country after the US to reach the grim landmark, underscoring how strict containment measures have failed to stop the virus rampaging across its population of 1.4bn.

The world’s second most populous nation achieved the unwanted record on Sunday after notching 25,000 cases daily over the past week, down from a peak of almost 100,000 new infections per day in September.

India largely avoided the worst of the early waves of the virus that spread through Asia and Europe in March, before emerging as a global coronavirus hotspot.

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George Russell

A US grand jury has indicted the head of a medical device company over an alleged scheme to defraud investors by claiming to have developed a 15-second finger-prick blood test for Covid-19.

Keith Berman, 67, chief executive of Decision Diagnostics, faces charges of securities fraud and making false statements.

He falsely told investors that the Food and Drug Administration was on the verge of approving his request for emergency use authorisation of the test, the US justice department alleged.

According to the indictment, Mr Berman and his California-based company were in a precarious financial condition in the lead-up to the pandemic.

George Russell

An outbreak in Australia’s most populous state has expanded to more than 80 cases over the weekend, prompting border closures.

On Monday, New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian announced 15 new locally acquired cases, all linked to the new cluster.

The cluster is likely to have emerged from a passenger that arrived into Australia on December 1 from the US.

Two neighbouring states, Victoria and Queensland, have virtually closed their borders to NSW residents.

A health worker takes a swab from a Northern Beaches resident on Sunday

From Sunday, people who live in Greater Sydney and the Central Coast cannot enter Victoria. Police are preparing to set up checkpoints on the border and the state has asked for military assistance.

Anyone from this zone found trying to enter Victoria is subject to 14-day mandatory hotel quarantine and could face a penalty of at least A$1,652 (US$1,260) up to $9,913.

The NSW border closure is a reversal of fortune for Victoria, which found itself isolated after a massive outbreak earlier this year that resulted in the state accounting for 90 per cent of Australian coronavirus-related deaths.

“Just as when other states closed their borders to us, these decisions are not easy, but they are necessary,” said Victorian premier Daniel Andrews.

There have been no new locally transmitted cases reported in Victoria for 52 days.

https://twitter.com/VicGovDHHS/status/1340410425221984258

Queensland recorded three cases on Saturday, with two imported and a third was a NSW resident who travelled to Queensland by air this week, tested positive, and has since returned to NSW.

Health officials in Queensland urged the state’s residents “intending travel to Sydney to reconsider their plans”.

Breaking news

George Russell

The US Congress has reached a deal on a near-$900bn stimulus package, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said on Sunday.

Leaders of the House of Representatives and Senate have “finalised an agreement” on a new Covid-19 relief package, he told the upper house.

“We can finally report what our nation needed to hear — more help is on the way,” Mr McConnell said. “There is another major rescue package for the American people.”

He said workers at hard-hit small businesses would get a “second draw” at the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan scheme designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll.

Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said a vote on the package is expected to take place on Sunday.

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George Russell

Israel on Sunday barred entry to all foreign citizens arriving from the UK, Denmark and South Africa, in an attempt to prevent the spread of new mutations of the coronavirus emerging in those countries.

The measures also order all Israelis returning from those three countries to enter isolation in state-run quarantine hotels, the prime minister’s office said.

“We are doing everything to prevent the mutation from entering Israel,” said prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The health ministry will attempt to locate Israelis who have already returned from the three countries in the past two weeks and test them.

About 130 passengers on two flights from London that landed at Ben Gurion Airport Sunday afternoon were sent to quarantine hotels, the Times of Israel reported.

Passengers found out about the new restrictions only upon landing. About 30 passengers on an easyJet flight from London refused to go into quarantine, the paper said.

Police were called and the passengers were returned to the UK.

Separately, Mr Netanyahu received the first anti-coronavirus vaccination in Israel. “He is in excellent condition and has no symptoms or side effects,” said his doctor, Zvi Herman Berkowitz.

Lorries back up on the M20 motorway near Folkestone, Kent

The UK government has called on Britons to stay away from ports in Kent, in England’s south-east, after the French government on Sunday joined several other EU countries in banning people and goods from the UK for 48 hours.

“Following the French government's announcement it will not accept any passengers arriving from the UK for the next 48 hours, we’re asking the public and particularly hauliers not to travel to Kent ports or other routes to France,” UK transport secretary Grant Shapps wrote on Twitter.

“My department is urgently working with Highways England and Kent Council on contingency measures to minimise traffic disruption in the area.”

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George Russell

Canada’s total Covid-19 caseload passed 500,000 over the weekend, according to official data.

There are 75,695 active cases across the country, and 14,040 deaths reported, according to Health Canada.

Canada has averaged 6,653 new cases in the week to December 17.

“Covid-19 is spreading among people of all ages, with high infection rates across all age groups,” said Theresa Tam, the country’s chief medical officer.

“However, nationally, infection rates remain highest among those aged 80 years and older,” she added.

Dr Tam said a forecasting model developed at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver indicates Canada will record more than 8,000 cases daily by the beginning of January 2021.

George Russell

US scientists believe they have discovered why coronavirus increases the risk of a stroke, and can cause strokes in people who had no known risk factors.

The connection between the Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, and strokes had been observed but was previously unknown.

Researchers used a silicone model to mimic intracranial atherosclerosis, a condition in which arteries become clogged with a sticky substance called plaque, limiting blood flow to the brain and increasing the risk of a stroke.

They showed that the higher pressure of the blood flow increases the production of a molecule called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, or ACE2, which the coronavirus uses to enter cells on the surface of blood vessels.

“The underlying mechanisms ... are critical to understanding the association of Sars-CoV-2 infection with cerebrovascular events,” the researchers, led by Naomi Kaneko and Sandro Satto of the School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles, wrote in the medical journal Stroke.

George Russell

China will prioritise high-risk workers in transport and logistics, not just healthcare workers, in its coronavirus vaccination programme, officials said at the weekend.

Cui Gang, head of the National Health Commission’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said port and airport workers, as well as people employed in cold-storage logistics, would be on the front line for jabs.

Fresh food market and public transit employees would also be a priority, he added.

Mr Cui said it was important to protect people against external threats as well as domestic transmission of the virus.

“Everyone has also noticed that several [outbreaks] might be related to imported cold chain logistics,” he said, referring to China’s disputed claims that recent imports of frozen food have been contaminated with the coronavirus.

Jiang Honghua makes dishes at her food stall in Wuhan as life in the Chinese city, once the centre of the coronavirus pandemic, has returned to normal

China has blamed Brazilian pork, Russian squid, Argentine beef and US chicken, among other products, for bringing in the virus but the World Health Organization maintains such contamination is unlikely.

Mr Cui said lower-priority workers should not worry about a delay in their vaccination. “We still have many effective prevention and control methods, such as personal protective equipment, wearing masks in public places, social distancing and frequent hand washing.”

Zeng Yixin, the head of the Vaccine Research and Development Team of the Joint Prevention and Joint Control Mechanism of the State Council and NHC deputy director, said it remained unclear how long the vaccine’s protection would last.

“It must be emphasised that the virus was discovered less than one year ago, so it is too early to say for how long the vaccine can protect,” he said. “We need to follow up and research continuously.”

George Russell

South African scientists said they are working with the World Health Organization to investigate a new variant of the virus that causes Covid-19 that is sweeping the country.

The 501.V2 variant was identified by a genomics team led by the Kwazulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform, health minister Zweli Mkhize said at the weekend.

It is believed to be the same as or a similar variant to the mutated virus found in parts of England in recent weeks. Nine cases of the new strain have been reported in Denmark, and one each in the Netherlands and Australia, according to the WHO.

The South African platform, known as KRISP, has sequenced hundreds of samples from across the country since the beginning of the pandemic in March, Dr Mkhize said.

“In addition, clinicians have been providing anecdotal evidence of a shift in the clinical epidemiological picture — in particular noting that they are seeing a larger proportion of younger patients with no co-morbidities presenting with critical illness,” he said.

Dr Mkhize said the evidence suggested that South Africa’s current second wave is being driven by this new variant.

South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases confirmed 10,939 more cases on Saturday, bringing the national total to 912,477 and 254 new fatalities. The official death toll stands at 24,539.

A nurse obtains a throat swab for a Covid-19 test in Johannesburg

Greece will receive a first batch of vaccine against Covid-19 on December 26 and plans to start vaccinating healthcare workers the next day, prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Friday. Medical staff at five public hospitals in Athens and Thessaloniki will be the first to receive jabs, he said.

Colombia recorded its highest daily number of coronavirus cases so far on Friday as the government confirmed it had secured 40m doses of vaccine to combat the disease. The health ministry said it had registered 13,277 new cases in a 24-hour period, beating the previous highest total set on August 19.

An oxygen machine exploded at a private hospital in southeastern Turkey on Saturday, killing at least 10 Covid-19 patients, the official Anadolu news agency reported. More than 50 people, including doctors, medical staff and security guards, suffered injuries while trying to transfer patients, the hospital told the agency.

The Swiss Agency for Therapeutic Products has approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in the world’s first non-emergency authorisation for a Covid-19 vaccination. The agency said data showed the level of protection afforded seven days after the second injection of the vaccine is more than 90 per cent.

Nike said its sales and profits recovered faster than expected in the third quarter and offered a bullish outlook for the coming months despite store closures prompted by a second wave of Covid-19 infections. For the three months ending November 30, Nike sales rose 9 per cent to $11.2bn, as net income rose 12 per cent to $1.3bn.

The US commerce has added drone manufacturer DJI to a list of sanctioned Chinese companies which it says have been involved in helping carry out human rights abuses. DJI’s drones have been used to deliver supplies during the pandemic without human contact and spray surfaces with disinfectant.

Shares in Hurricane Energy have plunged by nearly a third as the oil producer warned investors they faced dilution or even being left with “no value”, Hurricane said in May it could not sustain “fractured basement” production in the North Sea. The company has also been hit by the crash in petroleum prices.

Pharmaceutical distributor McKesson said FedEx Express would transport the first batches of Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccines in the US this week, while FedEx said it had earmarked $4m to supply the vaccine to nonprofit groups, including Direct Relief, International Medical Corps and Heart to Heart International.

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