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Today’s coronavirus news: WHO hosts special meeting on worrying new COVID-19 variant; EU wants to stop flights from southern Africa over variant

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The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Friday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

7:45 a.m. A partnership between Peel Public Health and a certain caped crusader to promote COVID-19 vaccinations to kids aged five to 11 was short-lived.

Peel Public Health has taken down a video featuring its chief medical officer of health, Dr. Lawrence Loh, and “Brampton Batman,” played by local man Stephen Lawrence, who has portrayed the comic book and film hero at many events in recent years.

The video received a number of positive and negative comments on social media and Loh said while the superhero theme was similar to that used by other public health units, the attention the clip got “was becoming a distraction.”

7:30 a.m. The bars are shut in Vienna, and the Christmas market is empty in Munich, as several European nations tighten up or even lock down to combat a spike in coronavirus infections.

Meanwhile in London, couples sip mulled wine at a seasonal market near the River Thames, full-capacity audiences fill the seats at the nearby National Theatre, and friends huddle over pints in pubs throughout the city.

Not for the first time in the pandemic, Britain is out of step with many of its neighbors. But this time, it’s happy to be different.

The U.K. has endured three nationwide lockdowns and recorded nearly 145,000 deaths from the coronavirus, the highest toll in Europe after Russia. Now, it is watching as hospitals struggle with surging cases in countries including the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, bringing lockdowns and restrictions. But while Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that a “blizzard from the east” could still ruin Britain’s Christmas, many scientists say the wind is now blowing the other way.

6:30 a.m.: Advisers to the World Health Organization are holding a special session Friday to flesh out information about a worrying new variant of the coronavirus that has been detected in South Africa, though a top expert says its impact on COVID-19 vaccines may not be known for weeks.

The technical advisory group on the evolution of COVID-19 was meeting virtually to discuss the so-called B.1.1.529 variant that has caused stock markets to swoon and led the European Union to recommend a pause in flights to southern Africa.

The group could decide if it’s a “variant of concern” — the most worrying type, like the well-known delta variant — or a “variant of interest,” and whether to use a Greek letter to classify it.

“We don’t know very much about this, yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations, and the concern is that when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, in a social-media chat Thursday.

Fewer than 100 full genome sequences of the variant are so far available, she said.

“It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has on any potential vaccines, for example,” Van Kerkhove said.

Reached by phone, advisory group chairman Dr. Anurag Agrawal, the director of Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in New Delhi, said it was too soon to comment on the variant. He said that more data was needed before he could add to the information that was already available.

“This is one to watch. I would say we have concern, but I think you would want us to have concern,” Van Kerkhove said. “We have people who are on this.”

5:56 a.m.: COVID-19 outbreaks in Ontario elementary schools have reached a high since the beginning of the school year, with more than 160 current outbreaks, almost double the number from two weeks ago and almost triple the total from a month ago.

And while scientists and doctors say that community vaccination rates, masking and ventilation upgrades in classrooms have played a role in helping to keep cases in schools from rising even higher, they warn that outbreaks could very well continue to climb with the cold weather — even with Thursday’s launch of COVID vaccine clinics for children aged five to 11.

That’s because with the recommended eight-week interval between the two pediatric doses, it will take more than two months for the first group of kids who receive a shot to be considered fully vaccinated. For example, children who receive their first shot in late November won’t complete their vaccine series until early February.

Read the full story from the Star’s Kenyon Wallace

5:44 a.m.: Two cases of the new COVID-19 strain raising alarm in parts of southern Africa and unnerving financial markets worldwide have been found in travellers in compulsory quarantine in Hong Kong.

A traveller from South Africa was found to have the variant — currently known as B.1.1.529 — while the other case was identified in a person who’d travelled from Canada and was quarantined in the hotel room opposite his, the Hong Kong government said late Thursday. The traveller from South Africa used a mask with a valve that doesn’t filter exhaled air and may have transmitted the virus to his neighbour when the hotel room door was open, a health department spokesperson said Friday.

B.1.1.529 carries an unusually large number of mutations and is “clearly very different” from previous incarnations, Tulio de Oliveira, a bio-informatics professor who runs gene-sequencing institutions at two South African universities, said at a briefing on Thursday. Early PCR test results showed that 90% of 1,100 new infections in the South African province that includes Johannesburg were caused by the new variant, de Oliveira tweeted.

South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the mutation was “of serious concern,” while World Health Organization officials have met to discuss the virus.

5:43 a.m.: The German air force will begin assisting the transfer of intensive care patients Friday as the government warned that the situation in the country is more serious than at any point in the pandemic.

Citing the sharp rise in cases, Health Minister Jens Spahn said contacts between people need to be sharply reduced to curb the spread of the virus.

“The situation is dramatically serious, more serious than it’s been at any point in the pandemic,” he told reporters in Berlin.

Spahn said Germany was having to organize large-scale transfers of patients within the country for the first time since the outbreak began in early 2020.

German news agency dpa reported that a Luftwaffe A310 medevac plane will fly seriously ill patients from the southern town of Memmingen to North Rhine-Westphalia state Friday afternoon.

Hospitals in southern and eastern regions of Germany have warned they are running out of intensive care beds because of the large number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients.

The country’s disease control agency said 76,414 newly confirmed cases were reported in the past 24 hours. The Robert Koch Institute, a government agency, said Germany also had 357 new deaths from COVID-19, taking the total since the start of the outbreak to 100,476.

Responding to a newly discovered variant that’s been spreading in South Africa, Spahn said airlines coming from there would only be able to transport German citizens. Travellers will need to go into quarantine for 14 days whether they are vaccinated or not, he said.

“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” he said.

5:42 a.m.: Members of Parliament are able to work from home again after passing a motion Thursday to resume hybrid sittings of the House of Commons.

Liberals and New Democrats joined forces to pass the motion over the objections of Conservative and Bloc Québécois MPs who had wanted to fully return to normal, in-person operations.

The motion gives MPs the option of participating virtually in proceedings, including votes and debates in the Commons and its committees, starting Friday and continuing until the House breaks for the summer in June.

It passed late Thursday by a vote of 180-140 after the NDP supported the Liberals in putting an end to two days of debate on the matter.

MPs first adopted the hybrid format a year ago, aimed at limiting the number of members in the Commons to avoid spreading COVID-19. But the all-party agreement to allow that format expired last June.

Since Parliament resumed Monday after a five-month hiatus, all but one of the country’s 338 MPs have been in the Commons because there was no unanimous agreement to return to hybrid sittings.

The missing MP — Conservative Richard Lehoux — tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday, two days after attending an in-person Tory caucus retreat.

5:41 a.m.: Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel is “on the threshold of an emergency situation” on Friday after authorities detected the country’s first case of a new coronavirus variant in a traveller who returned from Malawi.

The Health Ministry said the traveller and two other suspected cases, all of whom had been vaccinated, were placed in isolation.

A new coronavirus variant has been detected in South Africa that scientists say is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.

At a Cabinet meeting convened Friday to discuss the new variant, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said it is more contagious and spreads more rapidly than the delta variant. He said authorities were still gathering information on whether it evades vaccines or is deadlier.

“We are currently at the threshold of an emergency situation,” he said. “I ask everyone to be prepared and to fully join in the work around the clock.”

Late Thursday, Israel declared South Africa and six other African nations to be “red countries” from which foreign nationals are barred from travelling to Israel. Israelis are prohibited from visiting those countries and those returning from them must undergo a period of isolation.

Israel launched one of the world’s first and most successful vaccination campaigns late last year, and nearly half the population has received a booster shot. Israel recently expanded the campaign to include children as young as 5.

5:40 a.m.: European Union nations were moving to stop air travel from southern Africa on Friday, seeking to counter the spread of a new COVID-19 variant as the 27-nation bloc battles a massive spike in cases.

“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” said German Health Minister Jens Spahn.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement that she “proposes, in close coordination with the member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region.”

Scientists say the new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.

Germany said von der Leyen’s proposal could be enacted as soon as Friday night. Spahn said airlines coming back from South Africa will only be able to transport German citizens home, and travellers will need to go into quarantine for 14 days whether they are vaccinated or not.

Germany has seen new record daily case numbers in recent days and passed the mark of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday.

Italy’s Health Ministry also announced measures to ban entry into Italy of anyone who has been in seven southern African nations — South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini — in the past 14 days due to the new variant.



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