by Issam Ahmed with AFP bureaus
The United States on Tuesday announced all air travelers entering the country will need a negative COVID-19 test before departure, as concerns grow over more contagious coronavirus variants.
The policy takes effect on January 26 and expands an existing measure targeting Britain, where the strain known as B117 has been tied to a drastic spike in cases.
Ireland, which now has the world’s highest infection rate, also announced Tuesday it was extending to all arrivals testing measures that previously applied only to travelers from the UK and South Africa.
“Testing does not eliminate all risk, but when combined with a period of staying at home and everyday precautions like wearing masks and social distancing, it can make travel safer,” said Robert Redfield, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The United States remains the worst-affected country, with around 380,000 — or a fifth — of the world’s almost two million dead, despite accounting for just four percent of the global population.
Also Tuesday, Democratic members of Congress voiced fury over the actions of some of their Republican colleagues who refused to wear masks while lawmakers sheltered from a mob that rampaged through the Capitol last week.
“I am now in strict isolation, worried that I have risked my wife’s health and angry at the selfishness and arrogance of the anti-maskers,” said Brad Schneider, the third Democratic representative to test positive.
Third vaccine in EU
Across the border in Canada, the most populous province of Ontario ordered residents to stay home as projections showed the number of cases could soon explode and overwhelm hospitals.
But there was some positive news in the European Union, which started the approval process for its third vaccine on Tuesday.
The 27-nation bloc promised an “accelerated timeline” after confirming drug company AstraZeneca had applied for approval for the jab it developed with Oxford University.
The EU’s medicines agency said a decision would still not come before January 29.
But the European Commission said Tuesday it had concluded exploratory talks with Franco-Austrian biotechnology laboratory Valneva for the possible purchase of up to 60 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine.
Switzerland meanwhile approved the Moderna vaccine, having already been the first country in continental Europe to start using the Pfizer-BioNTech jab.
Even with mass vaccinations however, World Health Organization scientists warned that coverage would still not be wide enough for population-level immunity this year.
Malaysia declared a state of emergency on Tuesday as fears grow that its health system is close to being overwhelmed, after China and Japan took measures against localized clusters.
The Netherlands became the latest European nation to tighten virus controls, extending its restrictions until February 9, including the closure of schools and non-essential shops, and a ban on people having more than two people in their homes.
“I don’t think I am going to surprise you this evening, the lockdown is extended by three weeks,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte told a televised news conference about the curbs.
Portugal’s 72-year-old President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa meanwhile has now tested negative for coronavirus after a positive test that saw him cancel all public engagements, his office said Tuesday, two weeks before an election he looks set to win.
China added a city of five million to a growing lockdown area near Beijing on Tuesday, as WHO experts arrive in the central city of Wuhan to probe the origins of the disease there.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday demanded China release a citizen journalist jailed for reports from Wuhan, accusing Beijing of seeking to cover up the Covid-19 pandemic.
Eastern Europe appeal
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, under pressure for having failed to secure any Western-made vaccines, on Tuesday called on the European Union to help source coronavirus shots.
Zelensky’s appeal came a day after Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama accused the EU of leaving the Balkans region behind in its immunizations.
Malawi lost two senior members of government to the virus Tuesday, transport minister Sidik Mia and local government minister Lingson Belekanyama.
South Africa on Monday restricted movement across its land borders and extended recently imposed coronavirus restrictions, as it grappled with a surge in cases fueled by a new virus strain.
Mask threat to wildlife
Sports fans can look forward to England starting a cricket Test match in Sri Lanka on Thursday, 10 months after their tour was called off.
But elsewhere in the sporting world, shredded schedules and crisis meetings were still the order of the day.
Tokyo Olympics organizers dismissed speculation that this summer’s event was about to be canceled, as polls showed public support declining.
Formula One announced a major reshuffle of next season’s races on Tuesday, shifting the season-opening Australia Grand Prix from March to November and postponing the China race indefinitely.
And the NBA and its players union updated COVID-19 health and safety protocols on Tuesday in the wake of increasing player cases and game postponements.
Environmentalists meanwhile warned about the pandemic’s longer term impacts.
Discarded face masks — littering waterways and beaches the world over — can wreck animal habitats and take hundreds of years to decompose, campaigners warned.