TOKYO — Japan enacted legislation allowing officials to enforce coronavirus measures by punishing violators of mandatory orders with fines.
This comes as the country struggles to slow the latest wave of infections amid growing uncertainty about the distribution of COVID-19 vaccine considered key to holding the Olympics this summer.
The legislation was passed by the parliament and enacted into law the day after Prime Minister Yoshihide extended an ongoing non-binding state of emergency in Tokyo and nine other urban areas by one month until March 7.
Under the revised laws that take effect next week, restaurants, bars and other business owners that defy mandatory orders for shorter service hours or closures can be fined up to 300,000 yen ($2,860). Fines of up to 500,000 yen ($4,760) can be imposed on patients who refuse to be hospitalized, and up to 300,000 ($2,860) to those who refuse to cooperate with health authorities in contact tracing and other surveys.
Daily new cases have declined since January, but serious cases are still putting pressure on hospitals, experts say. The health ministry reports Japan had 393,836 confirmed cases and 5,912 confirmed deaths on Tuesday.
THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:
— Elated British officials say Oxford study backs up their decision to delay second vaccine shot for up to 12 weeks.
— 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 chief Yellen says Republican alternative to his virus aid plan is too small
— Czech Republic hits 1 million virus cases, smallest nation to do so
— Italy sees most snow in years but the pandemic has shut down ski resorts to all but elite racers
HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
STOCKHOLM — The Swedish government says starting Saturday there is an entry ban to Sweden for foreigners without a negative test within the past 48 hours.
Prime Minister Stefan Lofven says it’s an effort to contain the virus variants, “otherwise you will not enter the country.”
The move will affect the more than 1,600 kilometers (995 miles) long land border with Norway but also the border with Finland.
Last month, Norway temporarily closed its border with Sweden for the first time since 1954 to limit the spread of the mutation. Only Norwegian nationals and foreign nationals residing in Norway will be allowed to enter the country with a few exceptions.
WASHINGTON — When it comes to Super Bowl parties during this pandemic year, Dr. Anthony Fauci’s says to “just lay low and cool it.”
President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser says during TV interviews Wednesday that now isn’t the time to invite people over for watch parties because of the possibility that they’re infected with the coronavirus and could sicken others.
He says big events like Sunday’s game in Tampa, Florida, between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are always a cause for concern. Fauci says the best thing people can do is watch the game on TV at home with the people in your household.
The NFL has capped the game attendance at 22,000 because of the pandemic and citywide coronavirus mandates.
GENEVA — A U.N.-backed program to deploy COVID-19 vaccines to the neediest people worldwide has announced plans for an initial distribution of more than 100 million doses by the end of the first quarter.
The COVAX Facility says it aims for nearly 200 million doses by the end of June. Most of the vaccines in the first phase will be from AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India.
Another 1.2 million doses of a vaccine from Pfizer are expected to be shared by 18 countries in the first quarter.
The AstraZeneca vaccine rollout needs “emergency use” approval by the World Health Organization, which is expected in mid- to late February. The rollouts are contingent on regulatory approvals and the readiness of nations to receive the vaccines, which recently have been in short supply worldwide.
ZAGREB, Croatia — Several thousand owners of restaurants, bars and other businesses shut down during the coronavirus pandemic have rallied in Croatia against the government measures.
The protests on Wednesday in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, was organized by an association of entrepreneurs who are demanding they be allowed to work while respecting the anti-virus rules.
Croatian businessmen say they have been devastated since they were ordered to close late last year during a surge in cases in the country.
Holding banners reading “#Let us work” or “It’s enough,” the demonstrators called for the resignation of the economy minister over what they described as “discriminatory” measures during the outbreak.
Croatia has registered more than 230,000 confirmed cases and 5,088 deaths.
BERLIN — A German military medical team is heading to Portugal to help that country deal with a spike in coronavirus cases.
The team of 26 doctors and nurses was flying to Portugal Wednesday from Wunstorf, in northern Germany. Dr. Ulrich Baumgaertner, the head of the military’s medical service, said the team will help at a civilian hospital in Lisbon.
Baumgaertner told reporters before the team’s departure: “It’s clear that significantly more capacity is probably needed there, but we can only give small, but we hope important, help from the limited resources we have.” He said the team is also taking material such as ventilators.
Portuguese hospitals are under intense pressure because of a surge that has given the small country one of Europe’s highest infection rates. The country has seen over 13,000 deaths in the pandemic.
PRAGUE — The Czech Republic has surpassed a milestone of 1 million confirmed coronavirus infections since the pandemic began.
The Health Ministry said Wednesday that the day-to-day increase in new infections was 9,057 cases for a total of more than 1 million. The country of 10.7 million people has registered 16,683 virus-related deaths.
The number of new infections has fallen since they reached a record high of almost 18,000 in early January, but they have stagnated in recent days at still dangerously high levels despite a strict lockdown.
Currently 93,043 people are ill with COVID-19 in the Czech Republic, with 1,002 of them in intensive care. The numbers are putting the health system of the Central European nation under heavy pressure.
LONDON — Britain’s health chief said Wednesday that a new study suggesting that a single dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine provides a high level of protection for 12 weeks supports the government’s strategy of delaying the second shot so more people can quickly be protected by the first dose.
Britain’s decision has been criticized as risky by other European countries, but Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the study “backs the strategy that we’ve taken and it shows the world that the Oxford vaccine works effectively.”
Hancock’s comments came after Oxford University released a study showing the vaccine cut the transmission of the virus by two-thirds and prevented severe disease.
The study has not been peer-reviewed yet and does not address the efficacy of the other vaccine currently in use in the U.K., made by Pfizer. Pfizer recommends that its shots be given 21 days apart and has not endorsed the U.K. government’s decision to lengthen the time between doses.
The U.K. has already given at least one vaccine shot to 10 million people.
LISBON, Portugal — Portugal has launched the second stage of its national vaccination plan as it struggles to get on top of a pandemic surge that has made it the world’s worst-hit country by size of population.
Health services began Wednesday inoculating some 900,000 people over 80 years of age, or over 50 with underlying health problems, during the next two months.
Prime Minister António Costa said in the first phase during January more than 400,000 people were vaccinated, mainly residents and staff of nursing homes, frontline health workers and security forces.
“We are now making a big leap forward,” Costa said of the second phase.
He said the challenge of the third phase of the plan, when the rest of the population is due to be inoculated, depends on how quickly manufacturers can provide vaccines.
JERUSALEM — Israel’s Health Ministry says it is widening its COVID-19 vaccination campaign to all of its citizens over the age of 16 starting on Thursday.
Israel is leading the world in vaccinations per capita, and as of Wednesday’s announcement has given 3.2 million people their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. More than 1.8 million people have received two doses of the vaccine.
At the same time that Israel has vaccinated around a third of its population, the country is under a nationwide lockdown to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, and new cases continue to mount at a troubling rate. Government statistics have also pointed to a drop in the number of daily vaccinations in recent weeks.
The Health Ministry has reported over 664,000 cases of the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, and at least 4,890 deaths from the disease. More than a quarter of those deaths — 1,423 — were in January alone.
BERLIN — Germany-based ticketing firm CTS Eventim says concert organizers should be able to require that customers show they’ve been vaccinated in order to attend events.
Chairman Klaus-Peter Schulenberg told German business weekly WirtschaftsWoche that “once enough vaccine is available and everyone can get vaccinated, then private event organizers should have the possibility to make vaccination a precondition for entry to events.”
In an interview published Wednesday, Schulenberg said CTS Eventim, which has numerous subsidiaries across Europe, said its systems have been modified so they can read vaccine records. The company is itself in charge of organizing the vaccine drive in Germany’s northern state of Schleswig-Holstein.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said every adult will be offered a vaccine by Sept. 21.
Germany’s disease control agency said there were 9,705 newly confirmed cases and 975 deaths in the past day.
COPENHAGEN — Denmark’s government said Wednesday it is joining forces with businesses to develop a digital passport that would show whether people have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, allowing them to travel and help ease restrictions on public life.
Finance Minister Morten Boedskov told a news conference that “in three, four months, a digital corona passport will be ready for use in, for example, business travel.”
“It is absolutely crucial for us to be able to restart Danish society so that companies can get back on track. Many Danish companies are global companies with the whole world as a market,” he added.
Before the end of February, citizens in Denmark would be able to see on a Danish health website the official confirmation of whether they have been vaccinated.
“It will be the extra passport that you will be able to have on your mobile phone that documents that you have been vaccinated,” Boedskov said.
The coronavirus pandemic has seen a severe reduction in international travel as countries try to contain the spread of the virus.
ISLAMABAD — Pakistani authorities have started vaccinating frontline health workers against the coronavirus amid a steady decline in confirmed cases and fatalities.
Wednesday’s start of the vaccine campaign comes days after Pakistan received half a million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine donated by China.
At a ceremony in Islamabad, Pakistan’s minister for planning and development paid tribute to the health workers, saying they were “real heroes” as they put their lives at risk in the fight against COVID-19.
Pakistan has said it plans to vaccinate 70% of the country’s high-risk population by the end of the year.
Also Wednesday, Pakistan reported 1,384 additional virus infection in the past 24 hours and 56 deaths. Pakistan has reported 11,802 deaths since the pandemic began.
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, which in most cases can be done at home.
BEIJING — China announced a plan to provide 10 million coronavirus vaccine doses to developing nations through the global COVAX initiative.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said China is responding to a request from the World Health Organization as developing countries seek to fill shortages predicted to run through March. He did not offer details on which vaccine China was providing to COVAX, or whether it was a donation.
COVAX, coordinated by the World Health Organization and GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, seeks to ensure low- and middle-income countries have enough shots as wealthy nations have snapped up a large part of the billions of upcoming doses from mostly Western vaccine makers.
WHO is in the process of approving Chinese vaccines for emergency use, he added. COVAX has secured only a fraction of the 2 billion doses it hopes to buy in 2021.
China has already shipped large numbers of its own vaccine to mainly developing countries, and it has pursued bilateral deals or donations with at least 27 countries. Two Chinese companies, state-owned Sinopharm and Sinovac, have been behind a large part of the effort to take Chinese vaccines abroad.
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 regulator 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.
— to apnews.com