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Coronavirus: Free to read

Coronavirus: Week of Nov. 21 to Nov. 27, WTO postpones ministerial conference

U.S. to bar visitors from southern Africa; WHO names new COVID variant 'omicron'

A sign of the 12th Ministerial Conference is pictured at the World Trade Organization headquarters in Geneva on Nov. 25.   © Reuters

Nikkei Asia is tracking the spread of the coronavirus that was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

Cumulative global cases have reached 260,559,002, according to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The worldwide death toll has hit 5,188,258.

For more information about the spread of COVID-19 and vaccination progress around the world, please see our interactive charts and maps.

-- Global coronavirus tracker charts

-- Status of vaccinations around the world

UPDATES CLOSED

Saturday, Nov. 27 (Tokyo time)

11:26 a.m. Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt says the country will introduce 14-day quarantine for citizens and their dependents traveling from nine countries in southern Africa due to the new coronavirus variant omicron, according to Reuters.

8:57 a.m. The WTO decides to postpone its first ministerial conference in four years as the new variant outbreak led to travel restrictions that would have prevented many ministers from reaching Geneva, the host city in Switzerland. Trade negotiators from 164 economies were to gather for the event on Tuesday. No new date has been set.

4:56 a.m. The U.S. will restrict travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi, starting next week, in light of the omicron variant.

"As we move forward, we will continue to be guided by what the science and my medical team advises," President Joe Biden says in a statement.

"I call on the nations gathering next week for the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting to meet the U.S. challenge to waive intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines, so these vaccines can be manufactured globally," he says. "I endorsed this position in April; this news today reiterates the importance of moving on this quickly."

3:50 a.m. The World Health Organization has named its fifth "variant of concern" for the virus behind COVID-19.

B.1.1.529, first reported to the WHO from South Africa this week, has been given the designation "omicron" under a system based on the Greek alphabet.

"This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning," the organization says. "Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa."

Current PCR tests work on omicron, which "has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage," the WHO says.

Major U.S. stock indexes plunged Friday local time. After an abbreviated session for the Black Friday holiday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite all ended down more than 2% compared with their pre-Thanksgiving closing levels of Wednesday.

3:45 a.m. Canada is closing its borders to the citizens of seven southern African nations to help stop the spread of a newly identified variant of COVID-19, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos tells reporters.

Friday, Nov. 26

8:36 p.m. The world's biggest vaccine maker, the Serum Institute of India, has shipped the first batch of AstraZeneca's vaccine to the COVAX international vaccine-sharing program after an eight-month hiatus, Reuters reports.

7:10 p.m. Japan will tighten border restrictions on travelers from South Africa and five nearby countries amid concerns over a new variant, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno says. According to Matsuno, people who have recently been to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe must spend 10 days in a government-designated quarantine facility upon arrival in Japan.

6:00 p.m. The World Health Organization, based in Geneva, is convening a meeting of experts at midday local time on Friday to assess the new COVID-19 variant, B.1.1.529, amid growing concern about it, WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier said. "WHO is convening a meeting ... to better understand the timeline for studies that are underway and to determine if this variant should be designated as a variant of interest or variant of concern," he said.

5:20 p.m. The European Union aims to stop air travel from southern Africa amid rising concerns about a new variant detected in South Africa, EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said in a tweet. "The Commission will propose, in close coordination with Member States, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529," she tweeted.

5:00 p.m. South Africa says a British ban on flights from six southern African countries because of a new variant seemed rushed, as even the World Health Organization had not advised on the next steps. "Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries," South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said. Britain said the variant was the most significant one found yet after temporarily banning flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia on Friday.

3:20 p.m. Singapore will restrict arrivals from South Africa and nearby African countries to shield itself from a new COVID-19 variant, its health ministry says. All non-Singaporean or non-permanent residents who have recently traveled to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe will be denied entry or transit through Singapore.

3:00 p.m. The Czech Republic reports 27,717 new cases for Thursday, the highest daily tally recorded in the country of 10.7 million since the pandemic started, government data shows.

1:49 p.m. India reports 10,549 new cases in the last 24 hours, up from 9,119 the previous day, pushing the country's total to over 34.55 million. Deaths rose from 396 a day ago to 488, bringing the total number of fatalities to 467,468.

1:24 p.m. Asian equity markets were hit amid rising concerns over a new COVID variant that is spreading in South Africa and has been detected as far away as Hong Kong. Japan's Nikkei Stock Average at one stage dropped over 800 points, or 2.7%, falling below 29,000 to touch its lowest level in a month. Other Asian equity markets followed suit, with Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index losing 2%, while the Taiwan and Singapore benchmarks were both down over 1%.

A security guard blocks an exit as he directs people to scan a QR code to track their health status at Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station, following the detection of new COVID cases in Shanghai, China, on November 25, 2021.   © Reuters

12:20 p.m. A handful of local COVID-19 cases in eastern parts of China have prompted Shanghai to limit tourism activities. The city detected three domestically transmitted cases with confirmed symptoms on Nov. 25, official data shows. Adhering to China's zero-tolerance policy, Shanghai has suspended travel agencies from organizing tours that involve trips between the city and other province-level regions. The last local symptomatic infection in Shanghai was reported in August.

9:50 a.m. Australian retail sales rebounded in October as the lifting of many stay-at-home restrictions unleashed a wave of pent-up shopping, further evidence the economy is recovering rapidly from a pandemic-induced slump. Government data show retail sales jumped 4.9% in October, to extend September's surprisingly strong 1.7% bounce. That was almost double market forecasts of a 2.5% gain.

A tasting at a winery in Australia's Hunter Valley region in mid-November as widespread coronavirus restrictions ease. The country's retail sales rebounded in October.   © Reuters

8:00 a.m. Britain says it is concerned by a newly identified coronavirus variant spreading in South Africa that might make vaccines less effective and imperil efforts to fight the pandemic. The country announced it was temporarily banning flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini on Friday, and that returning British travelers from those destinations would have to quarantine.

4:11 a.m. Czech President Milos Zeman returns to hospital after testing positive for COVID-19, his office says. His return comes just hours after Zeman, 77, was released following more than a month of treatment for an unrelated condition.

3:24 a.m. Saudi Arabia will allow direct entry to travelers from Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, Vietnam, Egypt and India from Dec. 1, lifting a requirement that they first spend two weeks outside the six countries, state news agency SPA reports. Travelers must still quarantine for five days in government-approved accommodation after arriving, regardless of their vaccination status.

A healthcare worker administers the Johnson and Johnson vaccine to a woman in Johannesburg.   © Reuters

2:44 a.m. Scientists in South Africa say they have detected a new variant in small numbers and are working to understand its potential implications. The variant -- called B.1.1.529 -- contains a "very unusual constellation" of mutations, which are concerning because they could help it evade the body's immune response and make it more contagious.

Early signs from diagnostic laboratories suggest the variant has rapidly increased in the most populated province of Gauteng and may already be present in the country's other eight provinces, the scientists tell a news conference.

1:59 a.m. The EU's drug regulator approves the use of Pfizer's vaccine for children between 5 and11, paving the way for them to be given a first shot as Europe struggles with a surge in cases. The European Medicines Agency recommends the vaccine be given as an injection in the upper arm in two 10 microgram doses, three weeks apart. Adult doses contain 30 micrograms.

12:44 a.m. Global supply chain problems are expected to be short-lived, the World Trade Organization chief says, adding she they will go into 2022 but not beyond. "Our assessment of this situation is it is not a structural issue. It's a transitory issue," Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala tells a media briefing, saying she expected them to stretch into 2022 and then work themselves out after several months.

12:15 a.m. Singapore reports 1,275 new cases after recording 2,079 the previous day. Of the new cases, 1,228 are in the community, 31 in the migrant worker dormitories and 16 are imported cases. The weekly infection growth rate is 0.72.

Thursday, Nov. 25

6:40 p.m. Germany has crossed the somber threshold of 100,000 COVID-19-related deaths, with a surge in new infections posing a challenge for the new government. Since the start of the pandemic, 100,119 people have died with the virus in Germany, data from the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases show. The number of new daily cases hit a record of 75,961. Hospitals in some areas, especially in eastern and southern Germany, are under pressure and virologists have warned that many more people could die.

6:00 p.m. Some Dutch hospitals have halted chemotherapy treatments and organ transplants to free up intensive care beds for a surging number of COVID-19 patients, an official says. The Dutch Hospital Association for Critical Care said it had asked the government to escalate the national COVID-19 plan to a stage under which regular care requiring an overnight stay would be cancelled. The number of coronavirus patients in hospital has hit levels not seen since early May, and experts have warned that hospitals will reach full capacity in little more than a week if the virus is not contained. Several COVID-19 patients were transferred to German hospitals this week.

Medics treat a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit in Maastricht in the Netherlands.    © Reuters

4:30 p.m. China's carbon emissions fell in the third quarter for the first time since its economic recovery from the coronavirus began, new research shows, partly due to a clampdown on property development and widespread coal shortages. China saw CO2 emissions drop by around 0.5% in July-September from a year earlier, according to the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. The fall marks a turnaround from an approximately 9% increase in emissions in the first half of 2021, when China's post-COVID-19 economic recovery was in full swing. The last time China's quarterly emissions dropped year-on-year was in January-March 2020, when COVID-19 first hit.

China's carbon emissions fell in the third quarter, new research shows, partly due to a clampdown on property development.   © Reuters

2:19 p.m. Swedish home furnishings retailer Ikea opens its first outlet in the Philippines and its biggest branch in the world. In doing so, it faces a blessing and a curse: The COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged consumer spending on home improvements; it has also disrupted its global supply chain.

11:30 a.m. South Korea reports 3,938 new cases, down from 4,115 a day earlier but still the second-highest daily count. The number of patients in serious condition rose to a record 612 as the country battles a lingering delta variant outbreak that comes as the country shifts its response to living with the virus.

10:00 a.m. The prices Japanese companies charge one another for services rose 1% in October from a year earlier, the eighth straight monthly gain and a sign inflationary pressure is building due to higher global commodity costs. The services producer price index hit 105.4 in October, the highest since November 2001, Bank of Japan data shows.

Sydney's waterfront on Nov. 11. Australian business investment slipped in the third quarter, though future spending plans remain buoyant now that most COVID-related restrictions have been lifted.   © Reuters

9:50 a.m. Australian business investment slipped in the third quarter as pandemic lockdowns shut many businesses, government data shows, though future spending plans proved resilient and a rapid recovery is expected now that most restrictions have been lifted. Capital expenditure fell a real 2.2% in the third quarter to 32.7 billion Australian dollars ($23.57 billion), in line with market forecasts of a 2% drop. Spending plans for the year to end June 2022 were upgraded to AU$138.6 billion, above most analysts' estimates.

9:46 a.m. South Korea's central bank lifts its key interest rate to 1% from 0.75% as it fights rising prices and soaring household debt. The Bank of Korea's seven-member monetary policy board agreed on the move, after having raised the rate by 25 basis points three months ago.

Wednesday, Nov. 24

7:23 p.m. Singapore and Malaysia next week will launch a quarantine-free travel lane at their border crossing, one of the world's busiest, for vaccinated people, the two countries said. Effective Nov. 29, the plan expands on an already announced move to start a travel lane for flights between Changi Airport and Kuala Lumpur International Airport from next week. The land travel lane in the first phase will apply to citizens, permanent residents or long-term pass holders of the country they are entering, to allow family visits, the office of Singapore's prime minister said in a statement.

2:24 p.m. India reports 9,283 new cases in last 24 hours -- up from 7,579 the previous day but the third straight day with less than 10,000 infections -- pushing the country's total to over 34.53 million. Deaths rose from 236 a day ago to 437, bringing the total number of fatalities to 466,584.

11:43 a.m. South Korea reports a new daily record of 4,116 new coronavirus cases for Tuesday as it battles to contain a spike in serious cases requiring hospitalization, the latest data from the Ministry of Health and Welfare shows.

Commuters in Seoul on Nov. 17 are reminded to wear masks as daily infections in South Korea spike.   © AP

11:34 a.m. New Zealand's central bank lifts interest rates for the second time in as many months, driven by rising inflationary pressures and as an easing of coronavirus restrictions supports economic activity. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand raised the official cash rate by 25 basis points to 0.75% in the final policy meeting of the year, saying it was appropriate to continue reducing monetary stimulus to maintain price stability and support maximum sustainable employment.

11:07 a.m. The World Health Organization's chief scientist says that despite hundreds of millions of COVID-19 infections and millions of deaths, humanity has only experienced "the tip of the iceberg." As such, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan is urging countries to further invest in and strengthen primary health services. In addition, she is encouraging wealthier nations to adopt "no country left behind" policies. "The pandemic has also brought out the gaps, the inequities within countries and between countries," she said in opening the Asia Summit on Global Health.

9:47 a.m. New Zealand will start allowing fully vaccinated foreign travelers to enter the country on April 30, easing border restrictions that have been in place since March 2020, the government has announced. Fully vaccinated New Zealanders in Australia can travel to New Zealand without requiring quarantine beginning Jan. 16, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told reporters. Fully vaccinated New Zealanders and residence visa holders can start traveling to New Zealand without quarantine on Feb. 13, he said.

9:10 a.m. The Singaporean government forecasts a growth rate of 3% to 5% for 2022, predicting a continued rebound from COVID-19 as global borders gradually reopen and domestic restrictions ease. The projected expansion, however, is slower than this year's forecast of "around 7%" -- a slight upgrade from the previous "6% to 7%" projection, after a 5.4% contraction in 2020.

6:10 a.m. The coronavirus pandemic has spurred a sharp rise in demand for influenza vaccines in India, according to hospital operators there. While a lack of access and high prices had stymied broader adoption, increased awareness has led to an upswing in shots this year after a massive wave of COVID-19 cases in the spring.

5:51 a.m. Europe and Central Asia's death toll from COVID-19 could top 2.2 million by spring, the World Health Organization says.

Daily fatalities there had doubled to about 4,200 a day last week from around 2,100 near the end of September. More than 1.5 million people have already died across the 53 countries, according to the organization.

"As we approach the end of 2021, let's do everything we can by getting vaccinated and taking personal protective measures, to avoid the last resort of lockdowns and school closures," says Dr. Hans Kluge, the WHO's regional director for Europe. The organization's European region includes both Europe proper and Central Asia.

Tuesday, Nov. 23

9:58 p.m. South Korea is expected to set another record daily coronavirus count with 3,573 cases as of 9 p.m. Tuesday, Yonhap News Agency reports. This figure already exceeds the country's highest daily count of 3,292, recorded last week. South Korea reported 2,699 cases for Monday.

Students leave school after attending classes on Nov. 22 following the reopening of elementary schools after months of closure due to a COVID-19 outbreak in Ahmedabad, India.    © Reuters

1:48 p.m. India reports 7,579 new cases in the last 24 hours, down from 8,488 the previous day and the lowest daily count since May last year, bringing the country's total infections to over 34.52 million. Deaths rose by 236 to 466,147. Meanwhile, the country has administered about 7.2 million vaccine doses since Monday morning, bringing total vaccination coverage to more than 1.17 billion doses.

Monday, Nov. 22

11:00 p.m. Some 73% of Japanese tourism businesses, including hotels, rail operators and amusement facilities, reported an increase in customer traffic in October, after the full lifting of the state of emergency declaration, according to a Nikkei poll.

Some hotels in northeastern Japan saw a 400% increase in reservations from the July-August period, thanks to travelers coming to see fall foliage.

But a full recovery remains a long way off. For many companies, the increase has been limited to 10% to 20%. Eighty-four percent of respondents said business has yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels.

Japan has eased curbs on restaurants' operating hours since October as infections continue to fall.   © Reuters

5:12 p.m. Tokyo reports just six new cases, down from 20 a day earlier and the lowest daily count this year. Following a dramatic decline this fall, the number of new infections in the capital has been below 100 since Oct. 9, while Japan has eased COVID curbs such as removing a limit on operating hours for eateries.

3:30 p.m. Thailand's unemployment rate hit a more than 16-year high in the third quarter, as tougher coronavirus restrictions affected economic activity and jobs, the state planning agency says. The unemployment rate jumped to 2.25% in the September quarter, representing 870,000 workers without jobs, from 1.89% in the previous three months. The curbs were eased from September, however, and the country earlier this month reopened to vaccinated foreign visitors without quarantine requirements.

2:00 p.m. India logs 8,488 new cases in the last 24 hours, the lowest daily count in one and a half years, bringing the country's total to more than 34.5 million. Fatalities rose by 249 to 465,911.

India logs 8,488 new cases in the last 24 hours, the lowest daily total in one and a half years.   © AP

1:50 p.m. New Zealand will adopt a new policy of living with the virus, starting Dec. 3, which will end tough coronavirus measures and allow businesses to operate in Auckland, its biggest city, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says. New Zealand has been unable to stamp out an outbreak of the highly infectious delta variant centered in the country's largest city.

"The hard truth is that delta is here and not going away, but New Zealand is well set to tackle it because of our high vaccination rates and our latest safety measures, including the traffic light system and Vaccine Pass," she said.

11:30 a.m. South Korea reports 2,827 new cases, down from 3,120 a day earlier. However, it is the highest daily tally for a Monday, when announcements usually include totals lower than those for other weekdays due to fewer tests being administered on weekends, according to the Yonhap News Agency. The number of patients in serious condition remains high, marking the third straight day the country logged over 500.

10:00 a.m. Australia on Dec. 1 will open its border to fully vaccinated eligible visa holders, who will not have to apply for a travel exemption, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says. In addition, all fully vaccinated travelers from Japan and South Korea will be allowed into the country beginning next month. Australia's largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, opened their borders to international travelers on Nov. 1, although the easing of entry rules only benefited returning citizens and permanent residents.

7:00 a.m. Riots broke out in cities across the Netherlands on Sunday, the third night in a row that police clashed with mobs of angry youths who set fires and threw rocks to protest COVID-19 restrictions. Unrest was reported in locations including Leeuwarden and Groningen in the north, the eastern town of Enschede and Tilburg in the south. The protests were sparked by opposition to government plans to restrict use of a national corona pass to people who have either recovered from COVID-19 or have been vaccinated, excluding those with a negative test result.

4:20 a.m. Brussels saw about 35,000 protesters take to the streets of the Belgian capital over government-imposed restrictions amid the country's recent rise in COVID-19 cases. Confrontations broke out between demonstrators and police, with some protesters throwing smoke bombs and fireworks, the newspaper Le Soir reports.

4:08 a.m. The U.S. Marine Corps is on pace to have the worst vaccination record among American military branches as up to 10,000 active-duty personnel are set to miss the service's Nov. 28 deadline, The Washington Post reports. While at least 94% of Marines have already met President Joe Biden's COVID-19 vaccine requirements or are on track to do so, the unvaccinated 10,000 are too late to start and complete the process by the deadline. The Navy has the highest vaccination rate within the U.S. military, at 99.7%.

3:02 a.m. Russian President Vladimir Putin received a booster shot against COVID-19, Russian news agencies quote him as saying. Putin in June said he had been vaccinated with Sputnik V vaccine.

Sunday, Nov. 21

1:40 a.m. The U.S. death toll from COVID related cases this year surpasses the toll from 2020, The Wall Street Journal reports, citing data from Johns Hopkins University. Total reported deaths in the U.S. reach 770,780, more than double the 385,343 COVID-19 deaths recorded last year, the paper reports.

Saturday, Nov. 20

11:22 p.m. Two people are hospitalized in the Dutch city of Rotterdam on Saturday after they were seriously injured when police fired shots during a protest against COVID-19 measures, authorities say. Reuters reports crowds of several hundred rioters torched cars, set off fireworks and threw rocks at police during the protests last Friday. Police responded with warning shots and water canons.

Protesters gathered to voice opposition to government plans to restrict access to indoor venues to people who have a "corona pass," showing they have been vaccinated, have already recovered from an infection or have proof of a negative test.

10:44 p.m. A compulsory quarantine ends for 111 Cathay Pacific employees who had stayed in the same hotel in Germany as three pilots who tested positive for COVID-19. Cathay Pacific Airways fired the three cargo pilots who were infected with COVID-19 during a layover in Frankfurt, over an unspecified "serious breach" of crew rules while overseas. Hong Kong's Centre for Health Protection of the Department of Health says it has ended the compulsory quarantine of the 111 staff, but 10 aircrew members were classified as close contacts and were asked to remain in isolation.

3:21 p.m. Singapore will relax curbs on social distancing from Monday, government ministers say. Limits on social interactions and dining out will be expanded to five people from the current rule of up to two vaccinated people. Singapore's number of daily COVID-19 cases has fallen below 3,000 on average. About 85% of the island nation's 5.45 million people have been vaccinated.

2:46 p.m. Hong Kong approves lowering the age limit for the COVID-19 vaccine from China's Sinovac Biotech to three years old from 18, as it pushes to incentivize more of its 7.5 million residents to get inoculated, according to Reuters. "Adolescents aged 12 to 17 will be accorded priority to receive the CoronaVac vaccine, with a view to extending to children of a younger age group at a later stage," said Hong Kong Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan.

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To catch up on earlier developments, see last week's latest updates.

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