The Latest: Israel reports 1st cases of new virus variant

JERUSALEM — Israel’s Health Ministry says it has detected the country’s first known cases of the new variant of the coronavirus.

The ministry announced Wednesday that it found the variant in three people who are in government-run quarantine hotels after returning from the U.K. The source of a fourth case is still under investigation.

Israel this week tightened its restrictions on entering the country, barring nearly all foreigners and requiring all returning Israelis to isolate in state-run hotels for 10 to 14 days. Flights from the U.K., Denmark and South Africa have been banned altogether.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the country is pressing ahead with a vaccination campaign it kicked off this week, while also weighing further lockdown restrictions.



Cheer will be in short supply this pandemic-stricken Christmas, as many face isolation, grief, job fears and potentially more contagious coronavirus variant.

No Christmas Day driving in Peru. Lebanon’s nightclubs are open, but no dancing. Such is the global mish-mash of coronavirus measures.

Freight from Britain and passengers have started arriving in France after the country eased a two-day blockade over a new virus variant.

France is springing elderly residents from care homes, but some families agonize if time with elderly relatives is worth the risk.

President Donald Trump has threatened to torpedo Congress’ massive COVID-19 relief package, demanding changes fellow Republicans have opposed.


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MEXICO CITY — The first formally approved COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Latin America on Wednesday.

A DHL flight touched down at Mexico City’s international airport and ground crew unloaded the first batches of ultra-cold vaccines produced by Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech.

The first vaccines were due to be given to health workers in Mexico City and the northern city of Saltillo starting on Thursday. Officials didn’t say how many doses were in the first shipment, which was meant to test logistics procedures.

Shipments of the Pflizer vaccine are scheduled to arrive in some other Latin American nations this week and vaccine candidates from other producers have already arrived in some other nations pending formal approval by their health authorities.

Mexico expects to receive 1.4 million doses of the Pflizer-BioNTech product by the end of January.


NEW YORK — New York City will send sheriff’s deputies to the homes or hotel rooms of all travelers coming from the U.K. to ensure they comply with the city’s two-week coronavirus quarantine requirement.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the enforcement action Wednesday amid concern about a new, fast-spreading strain of the virus that has been detected in the U.K.

Airlines flying from London to New York agreed this week to test passengers before they board. All travelers to New York are required to fill out forms with contact information and where they’ll be staying, regardless of where they’re arriving from. They will then be sent a quarantine order by certified mail.


PHOENIX — Arizona on Wednesday reported at least 5,000 new known coronavirus infections for the seventh straight day as the state’s current surge continued to set pandemic-high records for hospitalizations.

The state coronavirus dashboard reported a record 4,163 inpatients being treated for COVID-19 as of Tuesday, including a record 972 in intensive care unit beds.

According to the dashboard, only 8% of all hospital beds and 7% of adult intensive care unit beds were not in use and available.

The state reported 6,058 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases and 54 deaths, increasing the state’s totals to 473,273 cases and 8,179 deaths.


LONDON — British Health Secretary Matt Hancock says scientists have identified another new variant of the coronavirus in two people, both of whom are contacts of recent arrivals from South Africa.

Hancock told a press briefing that anyone who has been in South Africa in the past two weeks, together with their close contacts, have to quarantine themselves “immediately.”

Hancock said the evidence collated so far suggests that the new variant has “mutated further” than the one that recently prompted the British government to tighten restrictions across large parts of England and which led to many countries imposing travel bans on the U.K.

Hancock also announced new travel restrictions on South Africa, which has also recently identified a new variant of the virus.


TORONTO — Canada’s health regulator announced on Wednesday that the COVID-19 vaccine from U.S. biotech firm Moderna is safe for use in Canada.

The vaccine is the second to be greenlit for use in Canada, following the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine on Dec. 9.

Moderna anticipates starting shipments to Canada within the next 48 hours. Up to 168,000 doses are set to arrive by the end of December, and two million by the end of March.

Canada is to get 40 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine in 2021, enough to vaccinate 20 million people, or about two-thirds of the Canadian adult population.


HELSINKI — The Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania say they are planning to operate a joint repatriation charter flight from Britain to Latvia for their citizens on Dec. 28 as scheduled flights have been suspended due to the new COVID-19 variant.

Estonia’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday the special flight from London to Riga, the Latvian capital, was meant for those Baltic citizens who urgently need to return to their home country.

The ministry said priority was given to “critical passengers” including unaccompanied minors, families with small children and people aged 65 and over. One has to permanently reside in the Baltic countries to qualify a flight seat which are to be equally divided by the three nations.

Like many others, dozens of Baltic citizens have been stuck in Britain due to the coronavirus flight restrictions imposed this week. The Estonian foreign ministry said flight restrictions between Britain and Estonia remain in force until Dec. 31.


CAIRO — Egypt reported its highest daily confirmed cases in months, with over 911 confined cases and 42 fatalities, as authorities said New Year’s Eve celebrations would be canceled.

Health Minister Hala Zayed announced the numbers in a news conference in Cairo on Wednesday, which brought the county’s official tally to more than 127,970 COVID-19 cases including at least 7,209 deaths.

The increase came amid repeated warnings by the government about a second wave of the pandemic. Authorities have been urging people to take preventive measures, including wearing face masks and social distancing.

Minister Mustafa Madbouly said on Wednesday that his government would closely follow the measures to avoid a lockdown. The government said celebrations and other activities on New Year’s Eve are not allowed as part of their ongoing efforts to fight the pandemic.


BERLIN — Undertakers in Saxony say crematoria in the eastern German state are reaching their limits because of the number of COVID-related deaths there.

German news agency dpa quoted the head of the regional undertakers association, Tobias Wenzel, as saying on Wednesday that his members are particularly worried about the Christmas public holidays.

He said waiting times for bodies to be cremated have doubled from five to ten days.

Wenzel told dpa that its’s not an option to take bodies out of state or even across the border to the neighboring Czech Republic.

Saxony has had a disproportionately high share of Germany’s deaths linked to the coronavirus — 2,409 since the start of the outbreak or almost a tenth of the nationwide total.


BERLIN — Some 300 soldiers are taking part in a trial run ahead of the opening of a large vaccination center in Berlin, slipping into the role of elderly people who will be among the first to get the coronavirus shots.

Officials wanted to see whether it was possible to get people who might have trouble walking or hearing through the vaccination process in 70 minutes.

Wednesday’s trial run was organized by the German Red Cross rather than Berlin’s notoriously inefficient state authorities.

Similar trial runs have been taking place across Germany, where more than 400 mass vaccination centers are being readied for the expected start of the immunization campaign Sunday.

Aside from the centers, mobile vaccination teams will initially also visit nursing homes to reach people who are unable to be moved but who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.


BERLIN — Switzerland has started vaccinating people against the coronavirus, a few days before its European Union neighbors start their vaccination campaigns.

The government in Lucerne canton (state) said that a woman aged over 90 at a nursing home in the central Swiss region became the first to receive the vaccine on Wednesday.

Switzerland became on Saturday the first country to approve the vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer for use under normal licensing procedures. The EU followed on Monday. Britain, Canada and the U.S. had authorized the vaccine earlier, but in line with emergency procedures.

Switzerland, which has a population of 8.6 million, is not a member of the EU. Its neighbors in the 27-member bloc plan to start vaccinations on Sunday.


ROME — A group representing COVID-19 victims is seeking 100 million euros ($120 million) in civil damages on behalf of 500 families from top Italian government officials.

The group, Noi Denunceremo (We Will Denounce), filed the civil action Wednesday in Rome, identifying as plaintiffs Premier Giuseppe Conte, Health Minister Roberto Speranza and Lombardy Gov. Attilio Fontana.

The group has previously filed criminal complaints with public prosecutors in Bergamo, who are investigating possible wrongdoing in the management of the pandemic.

Both the civil and criminal complaints allege “serious omissions” by government officials in Rome and Lombardy, starting with the decision to reopen a hospital in the town of Alzano after a patient there tested positive on Feb. 23 — two days after 11 towns elsewhere in the north had been designated the West’s first red zones.

They also cite the failure to lockdown Alzano and Nembro, neighboring towns in the Bergamo province that were devastated by the virus. The group contends that a lockdown of Alzano and Nembro would have avoided a national lockdown.


BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbia’s president says vaccination against the coronavirus will start on Thursday and that he may be among the first in Serbia to get inoculated.

Serbia on Tuesday received the first batch of 4,800 vaccines against the new coronavirus developed by BioNTech and Pfizer. Serbia is also testing the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Wednesday the citizens will be able to choose which vaccine they want to take.

He said he or some other top Serbian official will get vaccinated soon “as a signal to people” that all the vaccines are safe. Serbia has a strong anti-vaccination movement.

Vucic said more vaccines will arrive in the weeks and months ahead and that the goal is to have a million people vaccinated by the end of January.


BERLIN — Authorities say it will be possible for some people to fly between Switzerland and Britain to get home for the holiday period starting on Thursday after air links were cut because of the spread of a new coronavirus variant.

Switzerland on Sunday suspended air travel to and from Britain and South Africa, where a new and potentially more contagious variant also has been found. Many other countries took similar steps.

The Federal Office of Civil Aviation said Wednesday that outbound flights will be allowed to take home people resident in the two countries who are currently in Switzerland.

Flights to Switzerland will require special permission from Swiss authorities in advance, and will be allowed mainly to carry citizens of Switzerland and tiny neighbor Liechtenstein as well as people with Swiss residence permits.

Switzerland, unlike many of its neighbors, has left most of its ski slopes open, attracting tourists from countries including Britain. Earlier this week, it ordered people who flew in from Britain since Dec. 14 to quarantine for 10 days.


BRUSSELS — With the first coronavirus vaccinations due to begin in Belgium on Monday, national health authorities say that 60% of people want to be inoculated as soon as the shots become available.

A survey of 30,000 people by the Sciensano public health and research institute released Wednesday shows that one in four respondents are still unsure, and that 15% don’t want to be vaccinated.

Those in favor mostly say it’s because they want to return to their normal lives as soon as possible, while those against or unsure tend to be worried about the lack of certainty about long-term side effects.

Belgium plans to begin its vaccination campaign in five rest homes on Monday. The survey found that 90% of respondents say front-line health care workers should get the shot first, followed by people who already have health problems and those aged over 65.

Belgium, with a population of 11.5 million people, has been among the countries hardest hit per capita in Europe. Almost 630,000 people have been infected, and over 18,800 have died. The infection rate has stabilized recently, although around 90 people are still dying from the virus each day.


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