Jamie Smyth in Sydney
New Zealand’s “go hard, go early” strategy to combat Covid-19 attracted global praise and eliminated local transmission of the virus. But the country’s slow rollout of vaccines is putting people at unnecessary risk and threatens to delay its economic recovery, critics warned.
Wellington plans to start vaccinating frontline workers in April and the general public from July under a cautious strategy that avoids the emergency authorisation of vaccines pursued by crisis-stricken nations such as the US and UK.
Some health experts, however, are urging the government to speed up its immunisation plans in consideration of the risks posed by new, rapidly spreading strains of the virus, which have been identified among overseas arrivals.
“New Zealand is on the horns of a dilemma. It has a leaky border quarantine system, increasing numbers of people with fast-spreading virus strains and a flawed vaccine strategy,” said Des Gorman, professor of medicine at University of Auckland.
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Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong
China reported 126 locally transmitted cases of Covid-19 to the end of Wednesday, despite strict control measures, as officials said anyone returning home for the lunar new year would have to undergo testing before they travel.
Authorities have locked down tens of millions of people in cities and neighbourhoods and tightened quarantine measures on returning travellers in efforts to contain the largest outbreaks since early last year.
Students and workers who would normally travel home for the lunar new year in mid-February have been asked not to travel.
New restrictions announced on Wednesday require anyone who is travelling to their hometowns to first test negative for the virus and then self-isolate for 14 days on arrival.
The bulk of the cases were reported in the north of the country. Heilongjiang, a province that borders Russia, reported 68 new cases while Jilin recorded 33 new cases, and Hebei, which surrounds the capital, notched 20 new Covid-19 cases. Beijing and Shanxi province recorded two new Covid-19 cases each, with Shandong reporting one.
Health officials said on Wednesday that the country had recorded 757 new cases in the preceding week, most of which had been discovered in rural areas.
The National Health Commission also reported that 97 new asymptomatic carriers of the virus had been discovered in China. Official figures track only those who develop symptoms.
Jilin health authorities have linked more than 100 cases to a single visitor from outside the province who held events in enclosed spaces.
Peter Wells in New York
One year to the day since the first diagnosed case of coronavirus in the US, the country reported a record daily increase in its Covid-19 death toll as the Biden administration took over the country's response to the pandemic.
Authorities attributed a further 4,409 fatalities to coronavirus, more than double the 2,141 reported on Tuesday, according to Covid Tracking Project data. That surpassed the previous daily record of 4,087 on January 13.
The latest figure was underpinned by California and Texas, the two most-populous states. The former reported 694 fatalities, one shy of its single-day record, while the latter set a new peak with 450 reported deaths in a day.
Since the start of the pandemic, 396,837 people in the US have died of the virus, according to Covid Tracking Project, while Johns Hopkins University, which uses an alternate methodology, puts the death toll at more than 400,000.
Over the past week, the US has averaged 3,043 fatalities a day, less than the record rate of 3,335 a day recorded about a week ago. On Tuesday, the number dipped below 3,000 for the first time in 11 days.
Hospitalisations continue on an encouraging downward trend. The number of people currently in US hospitals with coronavirus dropped by more than 1,100 over the past 24 hours to 122,700, a 23-day low.
An additional 185,822 infections were reported, up from 144,047 on Tuesday, but the fourth day in a row with daily cases below 200,000. Over the past week, the US has averaged 192,825 cases, the lowest rate in 19 days and down from a record of 244,707 on January 11.
Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong
Japanese exports rose for the first time in over two years in December, provisional figures showed, in a positive sign for economic growth in 2021.
Exports rose 2 per cent year on year in December, according to official figures, marking the first growth since November 2018. That expansion was a touch below the 2.4 per cent growth forecast by economists in a Reuters poll.
Shipments to China, Japan’s biggest trade partner, climbed 10.2 per cent last month, while exports to the US improved slightly, up 0.7 per cent year-on-year. Renewed lockdowns in Western Europe meant exports to the region fell by 4.5 per cent.
Imports remained weak, falling 11.6 per cent year on year.
Tom Learmouth, Japan economist with Capital Economics, said that while exports did not reach pre-virus levels, he expects outbound shipments to “remain fairly strong” at the start of 2021.
He predicts imports will be flat quarter-on-quarter in the first three months of 2021.
“That suggests net trade continued to boost growth in Q1 — we think by 0.3 percentage points,” he said. “Combined with a further recovery in private investment, that should ensure GDP growth stays positive this quarter even as the third virus wave causes consumer spending to fall.”
Gary Jones in Hong Kong
International systems designed to respond quickly and effectively to pandemics are “not fit for purpose”, experts appointed by the World Health Organization said in an interim report released this week.
The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, established to review lessons learned from Covid-19, found critical elements of emergency procedures to be “slow, cumbersome and indecisive”.
“Detection and alert may have been speedy by the standards of earlier novel pathogens, but viruses move in minutes and hours, rather than in days and weeks,” said panel co-chair Helen Clark, also a former prime minister of New Zealand.
The WHO first announced that the coronavirus was a “public health emergency of international concern” on 30 January 30, 2020, but the panel found that the immediate action taken by many countries was "minimal".
“What is clear to the Panel is that public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January,” the report said.
“It is also clear to the Panel that there was evidence of cases in a number of countries by the end of January 2020. Public health containment measures should have been implemented immediately in any country with a likely case. They were not.”
Ryan McMorrow in Beijing
The coronavirus pandemic has seen Chinese venture capital investors retreating to the safety of big names in favoured sectors, thinning the ranks of tech start-ups in China, in a trend that is likely to continue this year.
The number of early-stage financing deals fell 45 per cent in 2020, halving the new tech start-up count from the previous year to 3,131, according to data from ITjuzi, a Chinese business information provider.
China’s tech sector has been chilled by a “capital winter” that began in late 2018 as a venture capital boom deflated. Last year, the number of investment deals fell for the fifth consecutive year, though start-ups’ cash haul ticked upwards, rising 12 per cent to Rmb815bn ($126bn).
“It’s partly because potential founders are staying put in what are secure jobs, instead of taking the leap of faith,” said Zhao Chen, managing partner at start-up accelerator Plug and Play China.
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The lockdown in England has failed so far to suppress coronavirus transmission, according to the latest survey, which also indicated a “worrying” possible uptick in infections.
The closely watched React-1 study led by Imperial College London concluded that prevalence of the virus, known as Sars-Cov-2, was “very high with no evidence of decline”. The finding was based on the analysis of 142,900 nose and throat swabs from a representative sample of the English population between January 6 and 15.
The researchers estimated that the reproduction number R, which measures the average number of people one individual infects, was between 0.94 and 1.15, with a central estimate of 1.04 — which would mean the rate of infection is rising slowly.
Paul Elliott, one of the co-leaders of the study, said his team would continue to monitor closely data that pointed to “worrying suggestions of a recent uptick in infections”.
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Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong
Asia-Pacific stocks rose on Thursday after Wall Street notched record highs as President Joe Biden was sworn into office and investors focused on his administration’s stimulus package.
In Japan, the Topix added 0.4 per cent, the Kospi in South Korea was up 0.8 per cent and the S&P/ASX 200 in Australia gained 0.7 per cent.
Those moves came after the S&P 500 ended the day up 1.4 per cent at a closing record on optimism for Mr Biden’s plans to support the US economy. The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite added 2 per cent to close at a new high.
S&P 500 futures edged up 0.1 per cent.
Joe Biden, the US president, has signed an executive order establishing a mask mandate on federal properties for the next 100 days in order to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
He also signed an order bringing the US back into the Paris climate accord, marking a big break with the Trump administration on handling the climate crisis.
On November 4, after the US officially left the Paris agreement, Mr Biden had tweeted "And in exactly 77 days the Biden Administration will rejoin it". The move by Mr Biden came on his first afternoon as president, and was paired with the signature of an executive order.
Mr Biden has vowed to dramatically reverse Mr Trump's disregard for tackling climate change on a global level and environmental deregulation on the domestic front.
Mr Biden's executive actions on masks and climate were the first of 17 he pledged to sign on his first day in office with more to come on immigration, healthcare and economic policy.
Mr Biden is also halting the US's withdrawal from the World Health Organization pursued by Mr Trump.
Amazon’s share price closed up almost 5 per cent on Wednesday after it shared a letter it had sent to President Joe Biden, offering to assist in the vaccination effort, and saying it was ready to begin inoculating its own employees immediately if provided with doses.
Dave Clark, the ecommerce group's head of consumer, said the company had in place an agreement with a “licensed third-party occupational healthcare provider to administer vaccines on-site at our Amazon facilities”. An Amazon spokeswoman would not disclose the name of that provider, but added it was talking to a number of potential partners on the effort.
The company already provides its 800,000 US-based employees with a range of healthcare services, including on-site clinics managed by California-based Crossover Health.
In the letter, Mr Clark wrote that Amazon was willing to share its “operations, information technology, and communications capabilities and expertise” to help the new administration reach its goal of vaccinating 100m Americans within Mr Biden’s first 100 days in office.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Amazon has invested more than $4bn in social distancing and other protocols in its facilities. In October, it said 19,816 frontline employees — including Whole Foods workers — had caught Covid-19.
One year to the day since the first diagnosed case of coronavirus in the US, Joe Biden has taken office in the middle of a pandemic that has claimed the lives of about 400,000 Americans. His inauguration speech reflected on a “deadly virus” that had also cost millions of jobs and closed businesses and called for a unified response to address what he said “may well be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus”.
Boris Johnson on Wednesday declared Britain was ready to quickly deploy tweaked vaccines to combat new variants of coronavirus, as the number of daily Covid-19 deaths in the UK hit a record of 1,820. The prime minister said he was concerned about the risk posed by dangerous variants of the virus as he justified new border restrictions.
British care home providers said on Wednesday they were confident they would avoid a repeat of the crisis last year when almost 30,000 residents died, as data showed infections and deaths in the sector were rising to levels not seen since May. Deaths in care homes for the elderly accounted for around half of all Covid-19 related deaths in the UK between March and September.
Boris Johnson is set for a “battle royal” with Conservative MPs over his expected cautious approach to easing England’s lockdown after the 15m people considered most vulnerable to coronavirus have been vaccinated.
Saga, the travel group targeting the over-50s, has become the first holiday business to insist that all of its customers must be vaccinated against coronavirus before they embark on its cruises. Saga said it had told holidaymakers they must be fully inoculated at least 14 days before travelling and take a pre-departure Covid-19 test.
A decision by Pfizer and BioNTech to reduce the number of vaccine vials they send to European countries has forced health officials to slow vaccination plans, with at least one EU member state threatening legal action. The move by the manufacturers followed a ruling this month from the European Medicines Agency that six doses can be extracted from each BioNTech/Pfizer vial rather than five, after health professionals found there was often extra vaccine left over.
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