The Latest: Swiss hunt down virus variant in St. Moritz

BERLIN — Swiss authorities have started mass testing residents and visitors in St. Moritz after a new variant of the coronavirus was detected in the upscale skiing resort.

People were asked to register online and come in for free tests to a local gym and a beverage store on Tuesday, after two luxury hotels were put under quarantine Monday. All schools, kindergartens and skiing schools were closed.

Officials said at least two dozen cases were detected in the two hotels, which local media identified as the Palace and the Kempinski hotel.

The Kempinski said late Monday that health authorities had confirmed cases of the mutated coronavirus among the hotel’s employees.

“Local health officials have ordered that all guests and staff at the hotel should be quarantined to minimize exposure to the public,” a spokeswoman for Kempinski told The Associated Press. “The hotel is strictly following the advice of the local health authorities and World Health Organization guidelines.”

All people in St. Moritz who were 5 and older were asked to participate in the test, which was voluntary. Swiss media reported that the variant detected in St. Moritz was first found in South Africa.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— Expert panel says both China and the WHO should have acted faster to prevent the pandemic

— Surging infections give Spain’s new emergency hospital in Madrid a second chance to prove its worth

— Germany’s Merkel meets with state leaders to ponder tougher virus restrictions

— High numbers of new infections are making the virus genetically diverse and each mutation threatens to undo progress

— Dubai promotes itself as the ideal vacation spot but the pandemic is shaking its economy

— Hospital chaplains are on the front lines, helping patients unable to see families

__Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

LISBON, Portugal — Local councils in Portugal are sending out teams to gather votes from people in home quarantine and from residents of nursing homes ahead of a presidential election on Sunday.

Authorities have taken exceptional measures to ensure voting is possible during the COVID-19 pandemic despite the fact the country is in lockdown.

For 48 hours beginning Tuesday, crews wearing protective clothing went to collect the votes of people who had registered for the service. However, fewer than 13,000 people — about 15% of those eligible — signed up for the service, officials said. Some voters complained that they were given little notice of the service.

On Sunday, 12,000 polling stations will be open, 2,000 more than usual, to help avoid large gatherings. Early voting last Sunday drew a record turnout.

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Norway has pledged to help fight the global pandemic by donating vaccines to low-income countries as soon as the vaccines are approved, its foreign aid minister said Tuesday.

“Ensuring COVID-19 vaccines reach people in the world’s poorest countries isn’t just about being charitable or acting on a moral imperative. It’s also in the best interest of every country to do so,” Dag-Inge Ulstein, the Norwegian minister for International Development, told The Associated Press.

“If the virus is circulating in one country, the rest of the world remains at risk.”

Ulstein gave no timeframe or figures for vaccine quantities but said the roll-out will take place “in parallel to the current vaccination of the Norwegian population.”

Norway’s move came a day after WHO’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had lambasted drugmakers’ profits and vaccine inequalities around the world.

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GENEVA — A panel of experts commissioned by the World Health Organization has criticized China and other countries for not moving to stem the initial outbreak of the coronavirus earlier and questioned whether the U.N. health agency should have labeled it a pandemic sooner.

In a report issued Monday, the panel led by former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said there were “lost opportunities to apply basic public health measures at the earliest opportunity” and that Chinese authorities could have applied their efforts “more forcefully” in January shortly after the coronavirus began sickening clusters of people.

“The reality is that only a minority of countries took full advantage of the information available to them to respond to the evidence of an emerging pandemic,” the panel said.

The experts also wondered why WHO did not declare a global public health emergency sooner. The U.N. health agency convened its emergency committee on Jan. 22, but did not characterize the emerging pandemic as an international emergency until a week later. At the time, WHO said its expert committee was divided on whether a global emergency should be declared.

“One more question is whether it would have helped if WHO used the word pandemic earlier than it did,” the panel said.

WHO did not describe the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic until March 11, weeks after the virus had begun causing explosive outbreaks in numerous continents.

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BRUSSELS — The head of Belgium’s COVID-19 vaccination task force said more than 100,000 people have gotten a vaccine shot so far.

Speaking during a press conference Tuesday, Dirk Ramaekers said the figure equates to about 35% of the first group prioritized by Belgian health authorities, which includes nursing home residents and staff, as well as hospital staff and other frontline workers.

Belgium health authorities are using shots manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, the two vaccines that have been approved so far in the European Union. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots to be fully effective.

The second phase of the vaccination campaign is expected to start in March and will involve people over 65 years old and high-risk patients, starting with the eldest and working towards the youngest.

Infections numbers have reached a plateau in Belgium since the end of November, with new daily cases between 2,000 and 3,000. According to virologist Yves van Laethem, new infections among people over 80 have dropped 20%.

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankan authorities say they will fully reopen the country for tourists beginning Thursday, in a bid to revive the island nation’s lucrative tourism industry that has been badly hit by the pandemic.

Authorities say the country’s two international airports will be fully operational from Thursday.

The Indian ocean island nation closed the country and the two airports for tourists in March when the first wave of the COVID-19 surfaced.

Under the new program, tourists must be tested at home within 72 hours of their flight. They are then tested when they arrive at their hotel and again seven days later. They will be allowed to travel in 14 tourism zones in a “travel bubble,” without mixing with the local population. About 180 hotels have been earmarked to provide accommodation for the tourists.

The government launched a one-month pilot project on Dec. 26 to bring down tourists and under that, 1500 tourists from Ukraine visited Sri Lanka in a “travel bubble.”

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PARIS — The head of France’s state rail company has sounded the alarm over the future of the Eurostar train service, which connects the U.K. with continental Europe and has been hurt badly by the halt to travel during the pandemic as well as Brexit.

Jean-Pierre Farandou, the CEO of SNCF, which owns 55% of Eurostar, told France Inter radio on Tuesday that “the situation is very critical for Eurostar.”

Passenger numbers on the cross-Channel train service – which reaches U.K., France, Belgium and Holland – have been down 95% since March and are currently believed to be less than 1% of pre-pandemic levels.

It comes days after U.K. business leaders called for a British government rescue of the Channel Tunnel rail operator as border closures designed to stop a contagious virus variant threatened to push the service toward the brink of collapse.

Farandou noted that “today, there is one round trip that runs between London and Paris, and one other that runs between London and Brussels-Amsterdam. And these trains are 10% full.”

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GERMANY — Chancellor Angela Merkel is holding a virtual meeting Tuesday with the governors of Germany’s 16 states to discuss the country’s pandemic measures amid concerns that new mutations of the coronavirus could trigger a fresh surge in cases.

The country’s infection rate has stabilized in recent days, indicating that existing restrictions may have been effective in bringing down the numbers. On Tuesday, the country’s disease control center reported 11,369 new virus infections and 891 new deaths, for an overall death toll of 47,622.

The government tightened the country’s lockdown in early January until the end of this month. However, surging infections in Britain and Ireland, said to be caused by a more contagious virus variant, have experts worried that the mutation could also spread quickly in Germany if measures are not extended or even toughened. .

While restaurants, most stores and schools have already been closed and those shutdowns are likely to be extended, there’s also talk about possible nightly curfews, an obligation to wear the more effective FFP2 or KN95 masks on public transportation, and a push to get more people to work at home.

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ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey has started vaccinating nursing home residents and their caregivers, a week after it rolled out its inoculation program.

People above the age of 90 are also expected to begin being vaccinated as of Tuesday, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca announced on Twitter.

Turkey rolled out its vaccination program on Jan. 14, a day after the country approved the vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech company for emergency use. Close to 850,000 health care workers have received the first of two doses of the vaccine.

Turkey has so far received 3 million doses of the vaccine and it was not clear when more doses would arrive. Officials have said Turkey reached agreement to receive 50 million doses.

Meanwhile, Turkey lifted its decision to suspend leaves for health care workers as well as to temporarily ban resignations and early retirements which it had imposed in October amid a surge of COVID-19 cases which overwhelmed its health system.

The number of daily cases have been dropping steadily from record highs of around 30,000 in November to around 6,000 on Monday. Turkey has recorded nearly 25,000 COVID-19 deaths and 2.4 million infections.

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LONDON — British Health Secretary Matt Hancock is quarantining himself after receiving an alert from the country’s test and trace app saying that he has recently been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

In a video posted on Twitter, Hancock said he has been pinged by the National Health Service’s coronavirus app and that he will be self-isolating at home until Sunday.

Hancock, who contracted the virus last spring, says self-isolation is “perhaps the most important part” of all the social distancing measures in place to break chains of transmission.

Britain is facing an acute resurgence of the coronavirus that has seen lockdown measures reimposed across the country. The Office for National Statistics said separately that one in eight people in England have had the virus, the highest rate among the four U.K. nations. Britain has seen over 90,000 confirmed deaths, the most in Europe.

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MADRID — As a surge of infections is once again putting Spain’s public health system against the ropes, the Nurse Isabel Zendal Hospital in Madrid, a project seen by many as an extravagant vanity enterprise, is getting a fresh opportunity to prove its usefulness.

Named after the 19th-century Spanish nurse who took smallpox vaccination across the Atlantic Ocean, the facility was built in 100 days at a cost of 130 million euros ($157 million), more than twice the original budget. It boasts three pavilions and support buildings over an area the size of 10 soccer fields, with ventilation air ducts, medical beds and state-of-the-art equipment. The original project was for 1,000 beds, of which roughly half have been installed so far.

The Zendal opened to a roar of competing fanfare and criticism on Dec. 1, just as Spain seemed to dampen a post-summer surge of coronavirus infections. By mid-December, it had only received a handful of patients.

But Spain on Monday recorded over 84,000 new COVID-19 infections, the highest increase over a single weekend since the pandemic began. The country’s overall tally is heading to 2.5 million cases with 53,000 confirmed virus deaths, although excess mortality statistics add over 30,000 deaths to that.

As the curve of contagion steepened after Christmas and New Year’s, the Zendal has gotten busy. On Monday, 392 patients were being treated, more than in any other hospital in the region of 6.6 million.

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NEW DELHI — India’s homegrown vaccine developer Bharat Biotech has warned people with weaker immunity and other medical conditions that include allergies, fever, or a bleeding disorder to consult a doctor before getting the shot — and if possible avoid the vaccine.

The vaccine by Bharat Biotech ran into controversy after the Indian government allowed its use without concrete data that showed it was effective in preventing illness from COVID-19. Tens of thousands of people have been given the shot in the past three days after India started inoculating its health care workers last weekend in what is likely the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

The company Tuesday said those receiving jabs should disclose their medical conditions, medicines they are taking and any history of allergies.

India on Jan. 4 approved the emergency use of two vaccines, one developed by Oxford University and U.K.-based drugmaker AstraZeneca, and another by Bharat Biotech. But the regulator took the step without publishing information about the Indian vaccine’s efficacy.

Most hospitals in India are inoculating health care workers with the AstraZeneca vaccine. But hospitals in New Delhi that have been administering the Bharat Biotech vaccine have seen many doctors hesitate to take the shot.

India is second only to the U.S. with more than 10.5 million confirmed cases. It has seen over 152,000 confirmed virus deaths.

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KIGALI, Rwanda — Rwanda is again locking down its capital, Kigali, for 15 days as coronavirus infections resume rising.

The prime minister’s office noted a “recent unprecedented rise in cases, deaths and transmission rates.” It said all movements other than for essential services will require a permit from police, and public transport and travel between the capital and other provinces are prohibited.

Schools, places of worship and stores are closed, and restaurants can only provide takeout. Tourism activities, however, can continue. Only 15 people can attend funerals.

An overnight curfew remains in effect in the rest of the East African country. Rwanda has had more than 11,000 confirmed virus cases, including 146 deaths.

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BEIJING — China is now dealing with coronavirus outbreaks across its frigid northeast, prompting additional lockdowns and travel bans.

The country reported a total of 118 newly confirmed cases Tuesday — most of them in Jilin province, the Hebei region just outside Beijing and Heilongjiang province bordering Russia.

A fourth northern province, Liaoning, has also imposed quarantines and travel restrictions to prevent the virus from further spreading, part of measures being imposed across much of the country to prevent new outbreaks during during February’s Lunar New Year holiday.

Authorities have called on citizens not to travel, ordered schools closed a week early and conducted testing on a massive scale.

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Travelers to New Zealand from most other nations will need to show negative coronavirus test results before boarding as of next Monday.

New Zealand recently imposed the test requirement for travelers from the U.S. and Britain, and authorities said Tuesday that it is being extending to all other countries, with the exception of Australia and a handful of Pacific Island nations. Travelers returning from Antarctica are also exempt.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says New Zealand has some of the strictest border measures in the world.

There is currently no community spread of the virus in New Zealand, with all known infections among travelers who have been put into quarantine at the border. Most travelers are required to spend two weeks in quarantine upon arrival.

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WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming White House press secretary says his administration does not intend to lift coronavirus travel restrictions for Europe, the U.K., Ireland and Brazil.

The message from Jen Psaki came Monday evening after the White House said President Donald Trump had lifted the restrictions for those countries, effective Jan. 26.

Psaki then tweeted: “On the advice of our medical team, the administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26.”

She added, “In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

Trump imposed the travel restrictions early in the pandemic to slow the spread of the coronavirus to the U.S. They prevented most people without American citizenship or residency from traveling to the U.S. from the affected regions.

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