New COVID strain ‘more contagious’
England's chief medical officer has warned that a newly identified variant of COVID-19 is more contagious than previous strains of the virus.
Professor Chris Whitty says "urgent work" is underway to rule out if the new strain, prevalent in the southeast of England, can cause a higher mortality rate.
WHO has been notified of the new strain.
"There is no current evidence to suggest the new strain causes a higher mortality rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments although urgent work is underway to confirm this," he said in a statement.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a news conference Saturday after meeting with his cabinet on the faster spreading strain. With cases surging, Mr Johnson has announced further restrictions.
Speaking at a Downing Street briefing on Saturday Mr Johnson said that people will be asked to stay at home and work from home if they can, not enter or leave Tier 4 areas, not stay away from home overnight and can only meet one person from another household outside in a public space.
People in all tiers were advised to "stay local" by the Prime Minister.
Mr Johnson said people should "carefully consider whether they need to travel abroad."
Those in Tier 4 will not be permitted to travel abroad apart from "limited exceptions", for example work purposes.
Travel and different households mixing will be banned under the new highest level tier - with families only allowed to form 'Christmas bubbles' on December 25 itself, the PM told the nation.
This means that around 20 million Brits in Tier 4 will not be able to see their families this Christmas thanks to his tough crackdown.
Mr Johnson said he has brought in new measures "with a very heavy heart".
The Prime Minister said: "I know how much emotion people invest in this time of year, and how important it is, for instance, for grandparents to see their grandchildren, for families to be together.
"So I know how disappointing this will be.
"But we have said throughout this pandemic that we must and we will be guided by the science. When the science changes, we must change our response."
The new variant strain of the virus which causes COVID-19 may be up to 70 per cent more transmissible and could increase the R value by 0.4, Mr Johnson said.
The government's scientific advisory group for COVID-19 has also warned the new strain is a "real cause for concern," and called for urgent action.
On Twitter, Sir Jeremy Farrar said, "Research is ongoing to understand more, but acting urgently now is critical. There is no part of the UK & globally that should not be concerned. As in many countries, the situation is fragile."
As millions of people look forward to Christmas, former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has said the government faces a "finely-balanced judgment" on whether to tighten the coronavirus rules.
He was quoted as telling BBC Radio 4's Today program, "It is a very difficult, finely-balanced judgment. The biggest worry is what happens indoor in family gatherings and that's where the risks do increase. ... It would be an enormous tragedy if we had a spike in deaths at the end of January/February because we took our foot off the pedal this close to having a vaccine."
Mr Hunt said it was on a "knife-edge" whether a third national lockdown would be needed after Christmas.
On Saturday, local time, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson held emergency talks with his Cabinet amid growing concern over the spread of the new strain of coronavirus.
Mr Johnson was expected to announce a further tightening of restrictions, including Tier 4 for London and England's South East.
Tier 3 was previously the highest level of restriction.
US AUTHORISES SECOND COVID-19 VACCINE AS INFECTIONS BREAK RECORDS
A second COVID-19 vaccine will soon be shipped out across the United States now that the Food and Drug Administration has authorised Moderna's dose.
The CDC must now vote to recommend it before vaccinations can begin.
The second green light comes as hundreds of Americans across the country received their first dose of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, which was authorised by the FDA last week.
Leading officials including Vice President Mike Pence and US Surgeon General Jerome Adams both received the vaccine publicly Friday in efforts to boost public confidence.
"This is the beginning of the end," Dr Adams told CNN on Friday night, local time. "Make no mistake about it, it's going to be a hard couple of weeks. We've still got work to do to get over this surge, but I want people to be encouraged."
However, three health care workers had allergic reactions after receiving a dose of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine this week.
The FDA has said there is a "remote chance" the vaccine could cause a severe allergic reaction, spooking the public about getting inoculated.
Across the US, the coronavirus is still accelerating as more than 18,000 Americans died of the virus in the past week.
On Saturday, local time, Minnesota senator Jerry Relph died of COVID-19, according to his family.
It is estimated that as many as 237,000 Americans will die of COVID-19 over the next three months.
For the 13th consecutive daythere were record hospitalisations across the nation.
For the past week, the US reported an average of more than 219,000 new COVID-19 infections every day.
On Friday, local time, the country broke a record, reporting more than 249,700 new infections.
It comes as the US authorised Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, paving the way for six million doses of a second vaccine to soon begin shipping across the hardest-hit country in the world.
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) chief Stephen Hahn said: "With the availability of two vaccines now for the prevention of COVID-19, the FDA has taken another crucial step in the fight against this global pandemic."
"Congratulations, the Moderna vaccine is now available!" tweeted President Donald Trump.
The US is the first nation to authorise the two-dose regimen from Moderna, now the second vaccine to be deployed in a Western country after the first, developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved by Britain on December 2, followed by several other countries including the US last week. Less-vetted shots have also been rolled out in China and Russia.
Meharry Medical College President James Hildreth, who was part of a panel of experts convened by the FDA to discuss approval matters, said Thursday it was a "remarkable achievement" to have developed and authorised the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines within the space of a year.
Together, they offer a glimmer of light at the end of the pandemic's long tunnel.
The United States alone has seen more than 310,000 people die from coronavirus infections and is in the midst of a brutal winter surge, with nearly 115,000 people hospitalised, according to the Covid Tracking Project.
Millions of doses will now start shipping out as early as this weekend from cold-storage sites outside Memphis and Louisville, overseen by logistics firm McKesson.
From there they will be delivered to sites around the country via partnerships with FedEx and UPS.
US STIMULUS TALKS AT IMPASSE
US politicians struggling to reach a critical pandemic relief and federal spending deal struck a last-minute agreement on Friday to avert a midnight shutdown of the government and extend negotiations through the weekend.
Congressional leaders are frantically trying to resolve sticking points in a roughly $900 billion (A$1.2tn) measure aimed at providing emergency relief for millions of Americans on the verge of losing key benefits.
On the brink of a shutdown, the House of Representatives voted 320 to 60 to extend funding for federal agencies through Sunday to allow negotiators to finish their stimulus package.
The Senate passed the measure by voice vote, and President Donald Trump signed the bill hours before the midnight deadline.
Talks on the relief package appear stuck over a Republican proposal to limit the Federal Reserve's ability to provide credit for businesses and other institutions.
A package to aid struggling businesses and jobless workers is critical to getting the world's largest economy back on its feet amid a resurgence of COVID-19 infections, even as new vaccines offer hope.
Without an agreement, millions of unemployed workers will lose their special pandemic benefits before the end of the year, and a moratorium on evictions is set to lapse within days.
Democrats warn that if the Fed's ability to extend lifelines is restricted, the fiscal crisis could be compounded in US states, particularly if Congress fails to pass assistance to state and local governments.
EUROPE GOES INTO MORE LOCKDOWNS
Austria will go into its third lockdown after Christmas, lifting it earlier for people who get tested.
The new lockdown comes 11 days after a second lockdown ended.
This new lockdown will start on 26 December, with shops, restaurants, theatres, museums and schools closed until the week of 18 January.
Austria is also introducing a quarantine requirement over the holiday season for almost all of Europe that appears to at least partly aim at deterring visits by skiers from neighbouring countries.
The King of Sweden, Carl Gustaf has made a rare political statement, criticising his government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
"I think we have failed," the king told Sveriges Television. "We have a large number who have died and that is terrible."
Carl Gustaf, 74, said his people had "suffered enormously".
"You think of all the families who were unable to say goodbye to their dead relatives," he said. "I think it's a grave and traumatic experience not to be able to say a warm farewell."
The Swedish strategy was to not enforce lockdown but to let people follow recommendations as they wished.
Since the Northern autumn the Scandinavian country has been hit by a second wave, causing PM Stefan Lofven to ban gatherings of more than eight people.
The death toll is approaching 8,000, and with cases nudging 370,000, some Stockholm hospitals expect to run out of intensive care beds this week.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron is said to be still suffering COVID-19 symptoms but is in a stable condition and isolating.
Italy has ordered a nationwide lockdown for the Christmas holiday.
The Prime Minister of Italy, Giuseppe Conte said the latest lockdown would prevent a new wave of the virus that would be spread by families reuniting to share Christmas.
He called the new move "a painful decision."
Personal visits of no more than two people per day will be allowed.
People are only allowed to go out for work, health, and grocery shopping.
No indoor dining is allowed.
The new lockdown will restrict movements until January 6.
Italy has the highest death toll in Europe, nearing 70,000.
INDIA PASSES GRIM MILESTONE
India surpassed 10 million cases as the country plans for a massive vaccination drive.
"India's Covid-19 pandemic growth has dropped to 2% and case fatality rate is amongst lowest in the world at 1.45%," Dr. Harsh Vardhan, India's health minister said, according to a statement from the Ministry of Health.
India is preparing task forces to oversee and implement the roll-out of the vaccine after regulators issued an emergency-use authorisation of the vaccine, with some states hoping to start mass inoculations as early as January.
Originally published as New COVID strain 'more contagious'