BioNTech says its vaccine likely works on COVID-19 variant in U.K., but more study needed

The latest:

The chief executive of BioNTech says the German pharmaceutical company is confident that its coronavirus vaccine works against the U.K. variant, but further studies are needed to be completely sure.

Ugur Sahin said Tuesday that “we don’t know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant,” but because the proteins on the variant are 99 per cent the same as the prevailing strains, BioNTech has “scientific confidence” in the vaccine.

Sahin said BioNTech is currently conducting further studies and hopes to have certainty within the coming weeks. BioNTech’s vaccine, developed together with U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer, is authorized for use in more than 45 countries.

As of early Tuesday, more than 77.4 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide with more than 43.7 million cases considered recovered or resolved, according to a database maintained by U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University. The global death toll stood at more than 1.7 million.

What’s happening in Canada

The latest:

As of 7 a.m. ET on Tuesday, Canada’s COVID-19 case count stood at 515,314, with 77,361 of those cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 14,332.

Ontario, which has seen COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations rise, announced a sweeping shutdown is set to begin across the province on Dec. 26. 

“We need to do everything in our power to protect our hospitals and our most vulnerable,” Premier Doug Ford said as he made the announcement Monday. But the Ontario Hospital Association said in a statement that it was “surprised and disappointed” the lockdown won’t happen for another five days.

WATCH | Ontario reveals details of provincewide COVID-19 lockdown:

Ontario has announced the details of a strict provincewide lockdown starting one minute past midnight on Boxing Day, as well as a late return to class for elementary students. The province’s latest modelling shows that existing restrictions haven’t been enough to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 2:55

In British Columbia, health officials on Monday reported 41 additional deaths over a period of three days and 1,667 new cases. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said that while case numbers seem to be levelling, they are still too high.

“We have to remember that people getting sick today were in contact with others days ago, and as much as two weeks ago.”

What’s happening in the U.S.

Congress passed a $900-billion US pandemic relief package that would finally deliver long-sought cash to businesses and individuals and resources to vaccinate a nation confronting a frightening surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Lawmakers tacked on a $1.4 trillion catchall spending bill and thousands of pages of other end-of-session business in a massive bundle of bipartisan legislation as Capitol Hill prepared to close the books on the year. The bill approved Monday night went to President Donald Trump for his signature, which was expected in the coming days.

The relief package, unveiled Monday afternoon, sped through the House and Senate in a matter of hours. The Senate cleared the massive package by a 92-6 vote after the House approved the COVID-19 package by another lopsided vote, 359-53. The tallies were a bipartisan coda to months of partisanship and politicking as lawmakers wrangled over the relief question, a logjam that broke after president-elect Joe Biden urged his party to accept a compromise with top Republicans that is smaller than many Democrats would have liked.

The bill combines coronavirus-fighting funds with financial relief for individuals and businesses. It would establish a temporary $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants and theatres, as well as money for schools, health-care providers and renters facing eviction.

EMS departments from throughout Westchester County convoyed on Monday to the Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center to cheer up young patients and health workers. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The 5,593-page legislation — by far the longest bill ever — came together Sunday after months of battling, posturing and post-election negotiating that reined in a number of Democratic demands as the end of the congressional session approached.

Biden was eager for a deal to deliver long-awaited help to suffering people and a boost to the economy, even though it was less than half the size that Democrats wanted in the fall.

The U.S. has seen more than 18 million COVID-19 cases and more than 319,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins.

What’s happening around the world

In the Asia-Pacific region, Taiwan has reported a locally transmitted case of COVID-19 — the first in 253 days.

The country’s Central Epidemic Command Center said on Tuesday that the patient is a 30-year old female. She was found to be a close contact of a foreign pilot who was previously confirmed as having contracted the coronavirus.

Health officials are in touch with 167 contacts of both individuals, and have asked 13 of them to quarantine at home. An official said the pilot, who did not mention the woman as a close contact, may be found in violation of Taiwan’s epidemic prevention laws and could be fined.

Taiwan has largely shielded itself during the pandemic, recording just seven deaths and 770 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

A medical staff member wearing protective gear takes a swab from a visitor to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a temporary testing station outside Seoul railway station on Tuesday. (Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images)

South Korea will prohibit private social gatherings of five or more people and shut down ski resorts and major tourist spots nationwide starting on Christmas Eve as it contends with a surge in coronavirus infections.

The restrictions announced Tuesday extend to a national level similar rules set earlier by authorities in the Seoul metropolitan area. It is the most serious step the government has taken to reinstate social distancing after months of easing.

India recorded 19,556 new cases of the coronavirus, according to health ministry data on Tuesday, its lowest daily increase since July 3.

In Europe, Ireland will shut restaurants, pubs serving food and some shops starting Christmas Eve, less than a month after they emerged from the previous lockdown, after health officials warned the country had quickly spiralled into a third wave of COVID-19 infections.

Ireland has one of the lowest incidence rates of COVID-19 in Europe after moving early in October to temporarily shut shops, bars and restaurants. Unlike much of Europe, they have largely been open again during the busy December trading period.

However, the five-day average of new cases has almost doubled in just four days, prompting the government to scrap provisional plans to keep hospitality open until closer to the New Year and move to a modified version of its highest level of restrictions until Jan. 12.

Germany has expanded its ban on passenger flights from the U.K. to forbid passenger transport by rail, bus and ship. Health Minister Jens Spahn said the measure took effect at midnight, a day after flights were halted. A similar measure applies to South Africa, where a new variant of the coronavirus also has been detected.

Tessa Boulton, left, takes a swab test from triathlete Michael Kruse, dressed as Santa Claus, at a testing centre at the Helios Clinic in Schwerin, Germany on Monday. Kruse traditionally hands out Christmas presents at the clinic’s children’s ward at Christmas and therefore has to be tested in advance. (Jens Buettner/dpa/The Associated Press)

The measures apply through Jan. 6. There are exceptions for freight and mail transport, and for medical and humanitarian flights. A string of European and other countries halted air travel from Britain because of a new and seemingly more contagious strain of the coronavirus in England.

A leading German virologist who was initially skeptical about reports that the strain was much more contagious voiced concern after seeing more data. Christian Drosten, a professor of virology at Berlin’s Charite hospital, tweeted that “unfortunately it doesn’t look good.” But Drosten added that the mutation has so far increased only in areas where there was a high or rising rate of infection, meaning that reducing contacts works against its spread.

In Africa, Sudan will ban travellers from Britain, the Netherlands and South Africa from Dec. 23.

In the Middle East, Oman said on Monday it’s temporarily suspending all entry to the country by foreigners and halting international passenger flights over worries about a fast-spreading new strain of the coronavirus.

Oman said the one-week closure of all official ports of entry would begin on Tuesday “to protect community members from the severity of infection and the speed of spread.”

In the Americas, Brazil tailed only the U.S. in total coronavirus cases, with more than 7.2 million cases reported and more than 187,000 deaths.

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