People wearing protective masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus wait for a traffic light near banners that read "Stay Home" hoisted along a shopping street in Tokyo, Japan, on Jan 14, 2021. (EUGENE HOSHIKO / AP)
SEOUL / ANKARA / JERUSALEM / RAMALLAH / DOHA / MANILA / JAKARTA / BANGKOK / HANOI / PHNOM PENH / TEHRAN / TOKYO - Japan is preparing legislation to make it possible to punish people who do not comply with the government's measures to combat COVID-19, with the penalties possibly including hefty fines and even prison sentences.
A meeting was held on Friday by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, where a revision to the infectious disease law was discussed that would make it possible to penalize people testing positive for COVID-19 but refusing hospitalization.
People who don't cooperate with the ministry's contact tracing efforts could also face hefty fines or prison terms.
About 81 percent of hospital beds in Tokyo designated for virus patients were occupied as of Jan 13. Patients requiring ventilators and other breathing equipment have doubled to 141 in four weeks
Japan missed opportunities to coordinate coronavirus testing and secure hospital beds in the months before the pandemic’s third wave, health officials, doctors and experts say, missteps that hampered its response as winter set in.
Japan has stood out for containing infections while avoiding the strict lockdowns that devastated economies elsewhere. The death toll, now at 4,315, is one of the lowest among developed nations. But the third wave has been painful. Daily infections hit a record 2,447 in Tokyo last week and authorities this month launched a second state of emergency.
About 81 percent of hospital beds in Tokyo designated for virus patients were occupied as of Jan 13, with 3,266 coronavirus patients hospitalized. Patients requiring ventilators and other breathing equipment have doubled to 141 in four weeks.
Japan's health minister said he’s hoping Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine will be approved by mid-February under an accelerated process.
The comments from Norihisa Tamura came after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga reiterated this week that the government was preparing to start the inoculation program in late February, and added that local governments were readying vaccination centers.
Clinical trials in Japan of the Moderna vaccine will be conducted from late January, with second doses to be completed in early March, and blood samples sent to the US a month after that, Tamura said.
People wearing masks shop for fresh food at a market in Manila on Aug 6, 2020. (PHOTO / AFP)
The Philippines on Friday extended by two weeks a ban on travelers from more than 30 countries and regions where a more transmissible COVID-19 variant has been detected, with the restriction also now covering Filipinos who want to come home.
The Southeast Asian country, which has recorded its first case of a new variant that was first found in Britain, has the second highest number of COVID-19 cases and casualties in Southeast Asia, next to Indonesia.
The flight ban, which has been expanded from the initial 19 countries and regions and was initially imposed for two weeks until Jan 15, will now be in effect until Jan 31, Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said in a statement.
The prohibition now covers travelers from the Chinese mainland starting Jan 13, and the United States beginning Jan 3.
Foreign nationals traveling from or transiting through the United Arab Emirates and Hungary will be barred from entering the Philippines starting Jan 17, Roque said.
The flight ban also now covers all travelers coming from or transiting through the flagged countries and regions, including Japan, Australia, Israel, Hong Kong, France, Germany and Italy, according to the statement.
The Department of Health (DOH) of the Philippines on Friday reported 2,048 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of infections in the country to 496,646.
The death toll climbed to 9,876 after another 137 deaths were logged, the DOH said. It added that 551 more patients have recovered, raising the total number of recoveries to 459,737.
India, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of inoculations, plans to offer 20 million doses of coronavirus vaccine to its neighbors as it draws up a policy to supply vials to countries across the globe, people with knowledge of the matter said.
An Indian state-run company will buy vaccines from the Serum Institute of India Ltd. and Bharat Biotech International Ltd. for supplying to Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Seychelles and Mauritius, the people said, asking not to be identified as the plan is still under discussion. Some of supplies may be free and treated as aid, they added.
The first batch of the vials will be shipped over the next two weeks, the people said. The government will then offer the vaccines to countries in Latin America, Africa and the former Soviet republics. A spokesperson for Bharat Biotech couldn’t immediately comment while a spokesman at Serum declined to comment.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen to tap India’s leadership in vaccine manufacturing by helping countries battling the pandemic and raise the South Asian nation’s profile to rival China, which is also supplying its home-grown inoculations around the world. Brazil, with more than 8 million cases, has sought urgent supplies and so has South Africa.
“It is too early to give a specific response on the supplies to other countries as we are still assessing production schedules and delivery,” India’s foreign ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said at a weekly briefing on Thursday.
India's COVID-19 tally rose to 10,527,683 on Friday as 15,590 new cases were registered during the past 24 hours, said the latest data from the federal health ministry.
Nearly 58 percent of the new COVID-19 cases were reported from the southern state of Kerala and the south-western state of Maharashtra. While Kerala recorded nearly 5,500 cases on Thursday, Maharashtra registered over 3,500 cases.
Asian nations, regions wary of speedy vaccinations
The nations and regions quickest to enact social distancing and contact-tracing systems have mostly kept COVID-19 in check, but their citizens now find themselves lagging in receiving the shots needed to finally end a pandemic that has devastated millions of lives.
Governments from Japan and Australia to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) and South Korea are taking their time before granting regulatory approvals for vaccines, in stark contrast to the Western nations that have rushed to inoculate populations.
That cautious approach may seem strange given the urgency to resume normal life, but low infection rates mean that Asian governments are able to wait to see how the unprecedented vaccination drives play out elsewhere. Still, the strategy runs the risk of leaving them economically disadvantaged against places that botched containment but rushed out vaccination.
In New Zealand, which has the top spot on Bloomberg’s COVID Resilience Ranking of major economies that have best fought the pandemic, the main opposition party asked Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to explain why the country “has fallen behind the rest of the world with its vaccine program.” In South Korea, an editorial in newspaper Hankyoreh said “we cannot forever ask people to stop their daily lives and endure the economic pain.”
But officials are defending their pace as the safer approach, and one that they’ve earned. “It’s not a bad thing to sit back a bit and see how others are doing,” said Lam Ching-choi, a medical doctor and a member of the Executive Council that advises HKSAR’s leader. “I’m totally sympathetic where they don’t have the luxury and they need to do it in the quickest manner to kill the epidemic.”
The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, currently reporting a few dozen COVID-19 cases daily and with a total death toll of 161 since the pandemic began, has yet to approve a single vaccine as it awaits more detailed clinical trial data ahead of a planned vaccination drive to start in February.
Australia, which shut its border to non-residents when the pandemic began and has instituted strict lockdowns when cases emerge, expects to approve the vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE by the end of January and the AstraZeneca Plc vaccine next month, with shots also beginning in February.
Asian officials and health experts remain anxious because it’s the first use of this particular mRNA technology for vaccines, which instructs the human body to produce proteins that then develop protective antibodies. It’s also the first global vaccination effort undertaken at such great speed.
Although millions have gotten jabs without incident, there have been some allergic reactions, including anaphylactic shock and incidents like the death of a health worker 16 days after receiving the Pfizer shot, though a link has not been established.
South Korea reported 513 more cases of COVID-19 as of midnight Thursday compared to 24 hours ago, raising the total number of infections to 71,241.
The daily caseload stayed below 600 for five straight days, after posting 451 on Jan. 11. It peaked at 1,240 on Dec. 25 last year.
The daily number of infections hovered above 100 since Nov. 8 owing to small cluster infections in Seoul and its surrounding Gyeonggi province as well as imported cases.
Of the new cases, 122 were Seoul residents and 180 were people residing in Gyeonggi province.
Twenty-nine were imported from overseas, lifting the combined figure to 5,869.
Twenty-two more deaths were confirmed, leaving the death toll at 1,217. The total fatality rate stood at 1.71 percent.
A scientist who led the development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine has warned Australia against delaying its rollout.
The Australian and New Zealand Society for Immunology recently called on the Australian government to pause its planned rollout of AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccines, saying it may not be effective enough to generate herd immunity to the virus.
In response, head of the Oxford Vaccine Group Andrew Pollard said that the focus should be on the vaccine's ability to prevent serious illness or death from COVID-19 rather than its capacity to stop transmission of the virus.
"Having a supply of vaccines today and getting them into people's arms is what will save lives. That to me has got to be the absolute focus," he said, according to The Sydney Morning Herald on Friday.
"The one hard bit of data we have for all the vaccines is that people who are vaccinated do not end up in hospital from COVID-19 and we've seen that consistently from our trials."
The Australian government has agreed to purchase 53.8 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine pending approval by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that he did not see any side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine that he received the previous day.
Speaking to the reporters after Friday prayers in Istanbul, Erdogan said that he is so far feeling good and will take the second dose 28 days later.
Erdogan on Thursday received his first dose of vaccine as the country started a mass vaccination program.
After receiving the jab at a hospital in the capital Ankara, Erdogan called on all political party leaders and lawmakers to encourage people to get vaccinated.
More than 300,000 people have been vaccinated so far in Turkey, Erdogan said, adding that COVID-19 vaccination is not mandatory in the country.
Turkish televisions on Thursday released footage of healthcare workers receiving their first doses as the country aims to inoculate nearly one million medical personnel first. The vaccination program will move on to the elderly, the disabled, and then to those aged 65 and above, according to the plan.
Israel's health ministry reported 10,933 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, bringing the total number in the country to 528,204.
The death toll from COVID-19 in Israel reached 3,860 with 57 new fatalities, while the number of patients in serious condition increased from 1,094 to 1,117, out of 1,802 hospitalized patients.
This figure marked a new record of patients in serious condition since the outbreak of the disease in the country in February 2020.
The total recoveries rose to 446,175, after 10,357 new recovered cases were added. The active cases rose to a record high of 78,169.
Also on Thursday, the number of active coronavirus cases among Israeli soldiers reached 1,546, the Israel Defense Forces said, the highest morbidity figure in the Israeli army since the outbreak.
Palestine announced on Thursday a two-week extension of the lockdown measures against the rapid spread of COVID-19 across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Ibrahim Milhem, the Palestinian government spokesman, said in a press statement sent to Xinhua that all universities and institutes of all levels will continue the home-based e-learning.
The grades 7-11 would return to normal working schedule under strict restrictions including social distancing and wearing facemasks, he added.
Milhem announced a full ban on public and private transportation between the West Bank districts, except medical staff and the Ministry of Education staff.
The Qatari health ministry on Thursday announced 209 new COVID-19 infections, raising the total number of confirmed cases in the Gulf state to 146,689, official Qatar News Agency (QNA) reported.
Meanwhile, 167 more recovered from the virus, bringing the overall recoveries to 143,261, while the death toll remained at 246, according to a ministry statement quoted by QNA.
A total of 1,306,477 persons in Qatar have taken lab tests for COVID-19 so far.
China and Qatar offered mutual help during the fight against COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
The Syrian government is expected to get the first batch of COVID-19 vaccine in the second quarter of 2021, deputy Health Minister Ahmad Khlifawi told Xinhua on Thursday.
Khlifawi said Syria will be getting the vaccine through the COVAX platform, which is co-led by Gavi (the Vaccine Alliance), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and the World Health Organization.
The declared goal behind the existence of COVAX is to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.
According to Khlifawi, the first batch of the vaccine will arrive in several shipments and cover the needs of 20 percent of the Syrian population.
Singapore's Ministry of Health (MOH) reported 45 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, bringing the total confirmed cases in the country to 59,029.
Of the new cases, 44 are imported cases, and one case in the community.
On Thursday, 35 more cases of COVID-19 infection have been discharged from hospitals or community isolation facilities. In all, 58,757 have fully recovered from the infection and have been discharged from hospitals or community care facilities, the ministry said.
There are currently 41 confirmed cases who are still in hospital. Of these, most are stable or improving, and none is in critical condition in the intensive care unit.
Furthermore, 202 are isolated and cared for at community facilities. These are those who have mild symptoms, or are clinically well but still test positive for COVID-19.
The Iraqi Ministry of Health reported on Thursday 770 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total nationwide number to 606,186.
The new cases included 355 in the capital Baghdad, 105 in Kirkuk, 61 in Nineveh, and 33 in Duhok, the Ministry said in a statement.
The Ministry also reported seven new deaths, raising the death toll from the infectious virus to 12,922, and 1,784 more recovered cases, bringing the total recoveries to 564,359.
A total of 5,010,080 tests have been carried out across the country since the outbreak of the disease in February 2020, with 38,596 done during the day, according to the ministry statement.
Indonesia added the highest number of new COVID-19 cases for the fourth consecutive day, as the government kickstarts its mass vaccination program this week.
The Southeast Asian country reported 12,818 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Friday, bringing its total tally to 882,418.
The Health Ministry also reported 238 more fatalities, bringing the country's coronavirus death toll to 25,484. Meanwhile, 7,491 more patients were discharged from hospitals, taking the total number of recoveries to 718,696.
Indonesians who have completed coronavirus vaccination may be exempted from having to show negative test result to travel by plane.
The government will issue digital certificates stored on mobile phone apps that people can use as a waiver for the test requirement when they travel by plane, Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said in parliamentary hearing on Thursday. The plan is meant to encourage people to get vaccinated.
Similar incentives could be imposed for other activities, including going to movies and concerts as well as other social gatherings, he added.
Thailand on Friday reported 188 new COVID-19 infections, bringing the total caseload during the past month to 7,213, according to the Center for the COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA).
Of the new cases, 154 were domestic infections while 34 others referred to those from abroad, CCSA spokesman Taweesin Visanuyothin told a press conference.
Thailand has so far confirmed 11,450 infections, 9,204 of which were domestic cases while 2,246 others had returned from abroad, Taweesin said.
The death toll remained at 69.
Cambodia on Friday reported 15 new imported COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of infections in the country to 426, according to a statement by the health ministry.
The new cases involved Cambodian migrant workers returning from Thailand via land borders, according to the statement.
Vietnam recorded five newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Friday, raising its tally to 1,536 with 35 deaths, according to the Ministry of Health.
The new cases involved an American and four Vietnamese who recently entered the country from abroad and were quarantined upon arrival.
The ministry reported that 11 more patients have recovered, raising the total number of recoveries to 1,380.
Iran's health ministry reported 6,485 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, raising the total caseload to 1,318,295.
THe death toll rose by 83 to 56,621, said the ministry's spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari.
Of the newly infected, 631 were hospitalized, Lari said.
A total of 1,107,011 people have recovered while 4,415 remained in intensive care units, she added.
Bangladesh reported 762 new COVID-19 cases and 13 deaths on Friday, bringing the tally to 526,485 and the death toll to 7,862, the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) said.
The total number of recoveries rose by 718 to 471,123, said the DGHS.
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