SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean health officials say they have detected the first local transmissions of what are feared to be more contagious forms of the coronavirus first identified in Britain and South Africa.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said Wednesday said it found four local cases of the British variant and one local case of the South African variant.
Since October, health workers have found 39 cases of new variants of the virus that causes COVID-19, also including a form that was first identified in Brazil. The previous cases were found in people arriving from abroad.
In all five of the locally transmitted cases, the virus carriers had been infected from relatives who recently arrived from abroad, the agency said.
The KDCA said it is expanding contact tracing to determine whether the new variants could have circulated further. It also called for administrative officials to strengthen monitoring of passengers arriving from abroad so that they minimize their contact with other people during their two-week quarantine period, which in most cases can be done at home.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
— World Health Organization investigators visit Chinese virus lab that has been the subject of speculation about coronavirus origins
— U.S. President Joe Biden and his treasury secretary say Republican alternative to his virus aid plan is too small
— Biden moves to expand access to COVID-19 vaccines, financing for virus costs
Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean officials are moving to limit travel and gatherings during next week’s Lunar New Year’s holidays by allowing train operators to sell only window seats and passenger vessels to operate at half capacity.
The Health Ministry announced the steps Wednesday while repeating a plea for people to stay home amid a steady rise in coronavirus infections.
Officials also plan to strengthen sanitization and install more thermal cameras at train stations, bus terminals and airports. Travelers will be required to be masked at all times and will be prohibited from eating food at highway rest areas.
Officials have also extended a clampdown on private social gatherings of five or more people, which they enforce by fining restaurants and other businesses if they accept large groups.
CANBERRA, Australia — Australian regulators have decided to place no upper age limit on use of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine despite reports of dozens of deaths among the elderly in Norway.
Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration said in a statement Tuesday that it received reports on Jan. 14 of about 30 deaths in more than 40,000 elderly people vaccinated with Pfizer. But it added that “no causal link between vaccination and deaths could be established.”
The agency says that “elderly patients can receive this vaccine and there is no cap on the upper age limit.”
The regulaor last month gave provisional approval for the use of the Pfizer vaccine in Australia and the first doses are due to be administered to people aged 16 and older in late February.
WELLINGTON, N.Z. — New Zealand’s medical regulator has approved its first coronavirus vaccine, and officials hope to begin giving shots to border workers by the end of March.
New Zealand has no community transmission of the virus, and border workers are considered the most vulnerable to catching and spreading the disease because they deal with arriving travelers, some of whom are infected.
Regulators on Wednesday gave provisional approval for the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech for people aged 16 and over.
However, New Zealand’s success in stamping out the virus also means it will need to wait longer than many other countries to get vaccine doses for the general population. Officials say they hope to begin general inoculations by midyear.
RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia’s state Senate has passed a bill that would require every local school division to make both virtual and in-person learning available to students.
The chamber passed the bill Tuesday on a 26-13 bipartisan vote.
The measure’s chances in the state House are less certain. At least one similar but more narrow bill aimed at students without adequate internet access failed during last year’s special legislative session.
Virginia currently has a patchwork approach to schooling, with some public and private schools offering in-person learning while others offer only virtual school. Supporters of the bill say that is arming children whose parents don’t have the resources to pay for costly tuition.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Ralph Northam says he will review the measure if it reaches his desk.
JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves says he’s skeptical about a new federal effort to reduce racial disparities in coronavirus vaccination rates.
Reeves said Tuesday that around 10% of Mississippi’s total weekly vaccine allocation will go to pharmacy chains like Walmart, CVS or Walgreen under the plan.
In the governor’s words, “While it’s probably true in Washington, D.C., or in New York City that you can walk a block in either direction and run into a Walgreens, or run into a CVS or a Walmart. … in Mississippi, there aren’t a lot of Walmarts in Issaquena County, and there aren’t a lot of Walmarts in very rural areas.”
As of Tuesday, 17% of vaccine doses in Mississippi had gone to Black residents, while 69% went to white residents.
KENSINGTON, Md. — A new study finds that cleaner air from the pandemic lockdown warmed the planet a bit in 2020, especially in places such as the eastern United States, Russia and China.
Tuesday’s study found the pandemic lockdown reduced soot and sulfate air pollution, but those particles also reflect the sun’s heat and help cool areas briefly.
The end result is that some places warmed temporarily as much as two-thirds of a degree last year and the planet as a whole warmed by about .05 degrees. The study’s lead author said that loss of cooling outweighed any reduction in 2020 of heat-trapping carbon pollution.
TOPEKA, Kan. — Republican lawmakers in Kansas are moving toward formally condemning Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s decision to give prison inmates COVID-19 vaccinations ahead of others.
The state Senate’s health committee agreed Tuesday to sponsor a resolution from its GOP chair, Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, that calls on Kelly to reverse her policy on inoculating inmates.
The full Senate could debate it later this week.
LANSING, Mich. — An athletic advocacy group, hockey league and parents of athletes have sued Michigan’s health director, seeking a reversal of 2 1/2-month state ban on contact sports that was issued to curb the coronavirus.
Let Them Play Michigan, a group of student-athletes, parents, coaches and school administrators, is among plaintiffs that sued in the Court of Claims Tuesday.
The complaint contends that the order, which was recently extended through Feb. 21, arbitrarily and irrationally singles out and deprives athletes of their constitutional rights and freedoms.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said she’s optimistic that the state can move toward reengagement in sports. Spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin said the department and governor acted decisively in November as a surge in cases threatened to overwhelm hospitals.
MEXICO CITY — Mexico is on the verge of approving the Russian COVID-19 vaccine Sputnik V following the publication of early results of an advanced study.
Assistant Health Secretary Hugo López-Gatell, the government’s pandemic spokesman, says the health ministry signed a contract Monday for 400,000 doses of Sputnik V that will arrive this month.
Once approved, the Russian vaccine would become the third to receive emergency approval in Mexico. The regulating agency approved the Pfizer vaccine in December and AstraZeneca’s in January. Mexico turned to the Russian vaccine following delays in obtaining others it was counting on.
Mexico has so far given about 675,000 doses, all Pfizer, to a population of 126 million. On Tuesday, a second batch of the active substance in the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in Mexico, where it will be packed and distributed through the rest of Latin America.
The Mexican government also launched a new website Tuesday for people over age 60 to register for vaccination appointments. However, the Mexican Health Department’s website was quickly overwhelmed and not working.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital says he tested positive for the coronavirus after undergoing an antigen test.
Miguel Romero says on Twitter that he is in isolation and awaiting the results of a molecular test for confirmation. He added the rest of his family has tested negative. He had planned to travel with his daughter to her university.
Gov. Pedro Pierluisi also is in isolation after having been in recent contact with Romero.
Romero is one of the highest-ranking government officials in Puerto Rico to test positive. The U.S. territory of 3.2 million people has reported more than 157,000 cases and more than 1,800 deaths.
BRUSSELS — The Belgian government says it won’t administer the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine to people over 55, saying there’s still a lack of data about its effectiveness among the elderly.
Health authorities in France, Germany and other countries have raised concerns that the Anglo-Swedish company didn’t test the vaccine in enough older people to prove it works for them and indicated they wouldn’t recommend it for the elderly.
“We don’t have enough info to be sure to say that it is good for the elderly,” says Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke.