WHO: Vaccine Approval Does Not Mean End of Pandemic

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Officials with the World Health Organization cautioned Friday that approval of a vaccine for use in Britain this week does not mean the COVID-19 pandemic is over.Speaking at the organization’s regular briefing in Geneva, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said many places around the world are facing very high transmission rates of coronavirus, and even as vaccines are approved, people must still follow national and local measures to limit the spread of infection.He said decisions made by citizens and governments would determine its course in the short run and when the pandemic would ultimately end.WHO Health Emergency Executive Director Mike Ryan concurred, saying the presence of vaccines does not equal zero COVID-19. He said that while “vaccines and vaccination provide a major, powerful tool to the toolkit that we have, but by themselves, they will not do the job.”Ryan said people will have to continue to work on managing their personal behavior and hygiene. He said they will also need to recognize that the vaccine will not be available to everyone for a while.Tedros was asked if he would, as many world leaders have offered to do, take the vaccine to show that it is safe. He said he would, but only if it was his turn, “because I don’t want to take anybody’s vaccine.”  

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WHO Chief Urges Investment, Preparation for Next Pandemic

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The head of the World Health Organization said Friday that with a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, nations must start investing and preparing for the next pandemic.“Despite years of warnings, many countries were simply not ready for COVID-19,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a special session of the U.N. General Assembly on the coronavirus. “Many mistakenly assumed their strong health systems would protect them.”He said countries that have dealt with recent coronaviruses, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) as well as other infectious diseases, have done better in containing COVID-19.“Now all countries must develop that same muscle memory and invest in the measures that will prevent, control and mitigate the next crisis,” Tedros said. “It is also clear the global system for preparedness needs attention.”FILE – President-elect Joe Biden departs a news conference after introducing his nominees and appointees to economic policy posts at The Queen theater, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020, in Wilmington, Del.Biden said in an interview Thursday that he will ask Americans to wear masks for 100 days when he assumes office on January 20, in order to reduce infections.California Governor Gavin Newsom says his state is on the verge of imposing stay-at-home orders. He says he will do so once hospital intensive care units in the state’s five regions reach more than 85% capacity, which is expected soon.
In South Korea, a spike in COVID-19 cases has public health officials urging people to move Christmas and New Year’s festivities from in-person to online.South Korea reported 629 new coronavirus cases Friday, a nine-month high in a country that for months has been a model of virus containment. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said 463 of the new infections were from Seoul and its surrounding areas.Italy’s prime minister signed an order Thursday limiting travel within the country during the Christmas holiday period until January 6. Allowances will be made for work as well as health and emergency reasons.Italy recorded 23,255 new COVID-19 cases Thursday and 933 deaths.

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South Africa Tightens COVID Restrictions Ahead of Christmas Season

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South Africa’s president has announced a raft of new restrictions in a major city as the nation stares down a possible coronavirus resurgence. This has been a tough year for the nation with Africa’s highest coronavirus burden, President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged in a Thursday night speech.But now, as many South Africans plan to embark on a monthlong summer holiday, now is not the time for South Africa to let down its guard, he warned. “As we want to relax, this virus does not relax.  And this virus does not take a holiday,” he said.  “This 2020 has been a difficult year for us as a nation and as a country. It has severely tested our resolve and demanded great sacrifices of each and every one of us. But even as the holidays approach, we cannot let our guard down. Unless we take personal responsibility for our health and the health of others, more people are going to become infected. More people are going to die.”Nearly 22,000 South Africans have already died, he noted.  To that end, he announced restrictions for one of the country’s major metropoles, Nelson Mandela Bay. The coastal city, also known as Port Elizabeth, has recently seen a jump in confirmed cases. The city’s one million residents now must observe a nighttime curfew and are restricted in both buying and consuming alcohol in public. Gatherings are now limited to 250 people for outdoor events and 100 for indoor events. He also said that countrywide, post-funeral gatherings — which Ramaphosa referred to as “after-tears parties” — are prohibited.FILE – South African President Cyril Ramaphosa visits the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) treatment facilities in JohannesburgJohannesburg, the nation’s economic hub, is known for drawing people from around the country. During the end-of-year holidays, the city empties out as many residents return to their families. Security guard Eric Kabelo plans to return to Carletonville, a small town southwest of Johannesburg, for the season. Kabelo, who is 27, says he has no quibble with the restrictions. “I think it’s fine,” he said. “Because of alcohol, it gives us a problem. You can check — a lot of people, they get into accidents, a lot of things are happening. I think the restriction is better.”Office manager Thando Zondi is also hoping to travel this holiday season, to her home in KwaZulu-Natal province. No restrictions have been announced for that area, she said. “His speech yesterday was mostly for (Port Elizabeth), and I’m in Gauteng so I’m not really affected,” she said. “We’re still on level 1, so it didn’t change anything for us, so I’m not affected, I’m fine.” South Africa Mourns People Who Died from Gender-Based Violence and COVID-19 The period of mourning began Wednesday on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based ViolenceHowever, in his half-hour televised “family meeting,” President Ramaphosa reminded all South Africans that they have a role to play in keeping the resurgence contained.“By far the greatest contributing cause of infections is that many people are not wearing masks and are not observing proper hygiene and social distancing,” the South African leader said. “As I said during our last family meeting, at alert level one, we have the measures we need to control the virus, all the tools in place, but our main problem is that there are parts of our country where people are not complying with the current restrictions and the basic prevention measures are not being followed.“Fellow South Africans, we must change our behavior now to prevent a resurgence of the virus and manage outbreaks wherever they occur,” he added. “If we think of this pandemic like a bushfire, we need to quickly extinguish the flare-ups, the flames, before they turn into a big wildfire like an inferno.”

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US Coronavirus Infections Top 14 Million

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More than 14 million people in the U.S. have been infected and more than 275,000 have died of COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University.U.S. President-elect Joe Biden said Thursday he will ask Americans to wear masks for 100 days when he assumes office January 20.In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Biden said, “On the first day I’m inaugurated, I’m going to ask the public for 100 days to mask. Just 100 days to mask — not forever, just 100 days. And I think we’ll see a significant reduction” in coronavirus cases that have surged to record numbers in recent days with a corresponding rise in daily death tolls.Among First Acts, Biden to Call for 100 Days of Mask-Wearing That’s made many people reticent to embrace a practice that public health experts say is one of the easiest tools to manage a pandemic which has killed more than 275,000 AmericansCalifornia Governor Gavin Newsom says his state will begin imposing regional stay-at-home orders for its residents.   The orders will begin when intensive care units in hospitals within the state’s five regions reach more than 85% capacity, something that has not happened yet, but is expected to occur soon.   
 South Korea case spike
In South Korea, a spike in COVID-19 cases has public health officials urging people forego in-person Christmas and New Year’s festivities, making them online celebrations instead.  
South Korea reported 629 new coronavirus cases Friday, a nine-month high in a country that for months has been a model of virus containment.
“It’s been 10 days since we upgraded the social distancing rules … in the Seoul metropolitan area, but the transmission still seems to be uncontainable,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said 463 of the new infections were from Seoul and its surrounding areas.
 
“Please hold online celebrations especially for Christmas, religious events and New Year sunrise festivals if possible, and we urge you to not host any parties or events at hotels,” a health ministry official said.  Italy limits travel
Italy’s prime minister signed an order Thursday limiting travel within the country from the Christmas holiday period until January 6.  Allowances will be made for work as well as health and emergency reasons.  
 
Italy recorded 23,255 new COVID cases Thursday and 933 deaths.  
 In this file photo taken on March 20, 2009, a sign marks the entrance to IBM Corporate Headquarters in Armonk, New York.Beware of hackers
As the U.S. prepares plans to roll out a COVID-19 vaccine, officials warned Thursday that hackers are targeting companies essential to its rollout.  
 
In a blog post released Thursday, IBM said it has uncovered a phishing plot targeting “organizations associated with a COVID-19 cold chain,” referring to the chain of people and businesses responsible for storing the vaccine at the necessary cold temperatures.

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Australian Telescope Finds 1 Million New Galaxies

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A powerful new telescope in Australia has mapped vast areas of the universe in record time. The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder was able to chart about 3 million galaxies in just 300 hours – 1 million of which have never been seen before.Galaxies are the building blocks of the universe. From a remote corner in the Western Australian outback, a new telescope, which has turned radio signals in space into images, has examined the entire southern sky in sharper detail than has ever been done before.The Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, 800 kilometers north of Perth, is run by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, or CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency.The telescope is not just one dish or antenna, but 36. They are three stories high and connected by fiber-optic cable, so they combine to work as one supertelescope.The array is helping scientists study black holes, the nature of gravity and the origins of the first stars.By cataloging millions of galaxies, scientists hope to unlock the secrets of how the universe has evolved.“If we can look at the statistics of them, where they are on the sky, and how they interact with each other, then we learn about how galaxies like our own can form and how we came to be here on this Earth,” said Douglas Bock, he CSIRO’s director of astronomy and space science. “And if we look at a galaxy that is far away, perhaps 12 billion light years away, we are looking back in time. So, we are looking at the light from that galaxy that was emitted when it was only a few billion years after the beginning of our universe.”Researchers say the array’s isolated location in Western Australia is ideal for this type of astronomy because it’s quiet and far away from Earth-based radio transmissions. Much work lies ahead. The CSIRO estimates the universe could contain as many as 1 trillion galaxies.

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Sweden Closes High Schools Until Early January to Stem COVID-19 Infections

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Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven announced Thursday that high schools would switch to distance learning beginning Monday through early January to slow the rate of COVID-19 infections in the country. Lofven made the announcement at a Stockholm news conference alongside Swedish Education Minister Anna Ekstrom. He said he hoped the move would have a “breaking effect” on the rate of COVID-19 infections. He added it was not intended to extend the Christmas break for students and he said he was putting his trust in them that they would continue to study from home. The distance learning will be in effect until January 6.People walk past shops under Christmas decorations during the novel coronavirus pandemic in Stockholm, Dec. 3, 2020.After a lull during summer, Sweden has seen COVID-19 cases surge over the past couple of months, with daily records repeatedly set. Deaths and hospitalizations have also risen sharply. Meanwhile, earlier Thursday, Swedish State Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell told reporters he did not think masks were necessary, just two days after the World Health Organization (WHO) expanded its advice to use masks as part of a comprehensive strategy to combat the spread of COVID-19. Tegnell said that in some situations, masks might be necessary, but that the current situation in Sweden did not require it. He said the evidence for wearing a mask was weak and he believed social distancing was much more important. In its expanded guidelines, the WHO said that where the virus was circulating, people — including children and students age 12 or older — should always wear masks in shops, workplaces and schools that lack adequate ventilation, and when receiving visitors at home in poorly ventilated rooms. On Thursday, Sweden reported 6,485 new COVID-19 cases and 35 new virus-related deaths, bringing the nation’s total COVID-19 fatalities to 7,007. 

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Facebook to Start Removing Bogus Claims About COVID Vaccines

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Facebook will begin removing false claims about COVID-19 vaccines from its social media platform, the company said Thursday, as part of an ongoing campaign to combat the spread of misinformation about them.“This is another way that we are applying our policy to remove misinformation about the virus that could lead to imminent physical harm,” Facebook said in a blog post.   The social media giant said it will begin removing information about the vaccines that has been discredited by public health experts in the coming weeks.  The decision, which also applies to Instagram, comes as the first COVID-19 vaccines are about to become available.Britain may start vaccinations within days after becoming the first country to give emergency authorization for a vaccine developed by U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech.Facebook has taken similar steps in recent months. The company removed 12 million posts with coronavirus misinformation from March to October, including a video post from President Donald Trump declaring that children are “virtually immune” to the coronavirus. Facebook has also banned ads discouraging vaccinations and promoted articles on an information center debunking misinformation about COVID-19.
 

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Federal Lawsuit Alleges Facebook Discriminates Against US Workers 

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The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a lawsuit Thursday saying social media giant Facebook was discriminating against U.S. workers and hiring cheaper foreign workers instead.Many of the temporary workers the DOJ accused Facebook of giving hiring preferences to were foreign workers with H-1B visas.H1-B visas allow U.S. companies to hire foreign workers in “specialty occupations.” Critics say companies, particularly in technology, exploit the visa program to hire foreigners for less money.The DOJ further alleged that Facebook “refused” to consider qualified U.S. workers for over 2,600 open jobs paying an average annual salary of $156,000.The move came after a two-year investigation into Facebook’s hiring practices, The New York Times reported.“Our message to workers is clear: If companies deny employment opportunities by illegally preferring temporary visa holders, the Department of Justice will hold them accountable,” Eric S. Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, told the Times. “Our message to all employers — including those in the technology sector — is clear: You cannot illegally prefer to recruit, consider or hire temporary visa holders over U.S. workers.””Facebook has been cooperating with the DOJ in its review of this issue,” company spokesman Daniel Roberts told Reuters. “And while we dispute the allegations in the complaint, we cannot comment further on pending litigation.”Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, with a personal wealth of about $100 billion, has long advocated for immigrants to work in the tech sector, the Times reported. In 2013, he created Fwd.us, a nonprofit advocating steps to make it easier to hire immigrants for technology jobs, according to the Times.The DOJ case against Facebook is another problem for Silicon Valley, which has come under fire in recent years for antitrust violations, anticompetitive practices, privacy concerns and content that some find offensive.

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WHO Europe Director Applauds Vaccine News, Urges Vigilance

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The World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) European director Thursday called Britain’s approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine “phenomenal” but urged Europeans to remain vigilant.
 
Speaking at his headquarters in Copenhagen, Dr. Hans Kluge said the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the vaccines on the verge of approval elsewhere, along with 50 candidate vaccines currently in human trials, provide phenomenal promise. He said the vaccines, combined with other public health measures, can bring the end of an acute phase of the pandemic.
 
While the rest of Europe awaits the vaccine, Kluge called on nations to have plans in place and take immediate stock of their preparedness.  
 
“This is a time for responsible leadership. To those countries seeing a decline in transmission: Use this time wisely,” he said.
 
Considering the initial limited supply of vaccine that will be available, Kluge said WHO recommends health and social care workers, adults over 60 years of age and residents and staff of long-term care facilities should be prioritized.  
 
He said nations should be scaling up public health infrastructure and preparing for the next surge. He warned that the virus still has the potential to do enormous damage “unless we do everything in our power to stop its spread.”
 
Kluge said there have now been 19 million COVID-19 cases and over 427,000 deaths reported in the WHO European Region, with over 4 million more cases in November alone.  
 
 Last week, for the third consecutive week, the number of new cases declined, Kluge said, but Europe still accounts for 40% of new global cases and 50% of new global deaths.  
 
He said the resurgence appears to be moving eastward, with the hardest hit countries now in central and southern Europe.

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