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‘Tough’ Weeks Ahead in U.S.; Tokyo Weighs Curbs: Virus Update

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U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy defended the Biden administration’s response to the omicron surge, conceding though that health officials need to “close that gap” in the severe shortage of testing. He said the outbreak is likely to worsen and that “a tough few weeks” are ahead.

U.S. President Joe Biden will discuss Covid-19 in a virtual meeting this week with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, amid complaints that U.S. service members there are helping fuel Japan’s rapidly rising infections. The Tokyo area and other prefectures are also considering imposing stricter Covid measures. 

After three weeks of lockdown, some counties and development zones in the Chinese city of Xi’an have begun restoring production.

Japan Weighs Stricter Covid Measures for Tokyo Area (7:56 a.m. HK)

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Japan’s government is deliberating placing stricter coronavirus measures, known as a “quasi” state of emergency, on Tokyo and surrounding prefectures within the week, broadcaster FNN reported, citing several unidentified government officials.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government said Sunday 19.3% of its hospital beds were filled, approaching the 20% threshold that would compel it to consider asking the central government to implement stricter restrictions. While FNN didn’t elaborate on measures that would be taken, previous restrictions have included shorter hours at retailers and dining establishments as well as caps on participant numbers at events.

Australia Regulator Concerned About Testing Costs (7:30 a.m. HK)

Australia’s competition regulator said it has “significant concerns“ about the retail price of rapid antigen tests, with reports of kits costing as much as A$100 ($72) apiece as the country grapples with a shortage of the diagnostic tool.

“Any test costing more than A$30, even with supply constraints, is almost certainly too expensive and would seem to be taking advantage of the current circumstances,” Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Chairman Rod Sims said.

Australia’s most populous state New South Wales on Monday reported 2,776 patients in hospital and 203 people in intensive care with Covid-19, up from 2,030 and 159, respectively, one week ago. More than 95% of cases sequenced in the past two days are the omicron variant, Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said.

Victoria, the second-biggest state, has 1,229 people in hospital and 129 in intensive care, compared with 818 hospitalizations and 118 ICU admissions one week ago.

Biden to Discuss Covid With Japanese PM (5:32 p.m. NY)

U.S. President Joe Biden will meet virtually Friday with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, to discuss “the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance” but also “combating Covid-19,” according to a statement from White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. 

New infections are rising rapidly in Japan, amid complaints that U.S. service members stationed there are helping spread the omicron variant of the virus. The prefecture of Okinawa, where most U.S. military are based, has reported record daily infection cases for several days this month.

Earlier in January, new restrictions were placed on three regions associated with U.S. troops. For two weeks starting Jan. 10, U.S. forces have been prohibited from leaving their bases except for “essential activities.”

France Continues Curbs on Unvaccinated (2:07 p.m. NY)

France’s Parliament on Sunday approved a bill to prohibit access to restaurants, cafes and other public venues to unvaccinated citizens 16 years and older.  

The country is switching to a new pass that requires vaccination instead of also allowing for negative tests. 

Health authorities say a plateau in virus infections may be in sight after daily cases surged to record levels. The figures of the past few days suggest France may be “close to a peak,” Vittoria Colizza, an expert in mathematical modeling of infectious diseases from Inserm, France’s health-research organization, said in an interview with Journal du Dimanche. The country reported 278,129 new cases on Sunday, the first day in six that cases grew by fewer than 300,000. 

Murthy Defends Biden Omicron Response (12:04 p.m. NY)

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy defended the Biden administration’s response to the surge of infections caused by the omicron variant, conceding though that health officials need to “close that gap” in the severe shortage of testing. 

“We have more to do,” Murthy said on ABC’s “This Week,” adding that the spike in infections outstripped what he said was an eight-fold increase in testing over the last month.

President Joe Biden and his top health officials are coming under increasing criticism, from the lack of tests to overcrowded hospitals around the nation. A new CBS News poll shows that a majority of Americans find coronavirus information from health officials confusing, with changing guidelines on masking and isolation periods for those who are infected. 

He said the outbreak is likely to worsen, that “a tough few weeks” are ahead.

England to Give Boosters to 16 and 17 Year Olds (8:39 a.m. NY)

England lowered the age threshold for Covid booster shots to 16, expanding access after the health service delivered more than 30 million of the shots to people over 18. 

Austria to Start Fines for Unvaccinated in March (8:33 a.m. NY)

Austria will impose fines on those without Covid-19 vaccinations from mid-March after a transition phase that starts in February, said Chancellor Karl Nehammer.

Djokovic Departs Australia (7:54 a.m. NY)

Novak Djokovic has left Australia after his anti-vaccination stance cost him a potential payday of A$2.875 million ($2.1 million) and a shot at tennis history.

Germany Reports Record in 7-Day Incidence Figure (7:15 a.m. NY)

Germany’s health institute RKI reported a record in the 7-day incidence on Sunday, reaching 515.7 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.

Earlier, Germany reported 52,504 new cases.

Chinese City Lifts Some Restrictions (6:59 a.m. NY)

The Chinese city of Xi’an has gradually begun lifting restrictions after over three weeks of lockdown as authorities sought to stamp out a local outbreak, AP reported, citing state media. 

State-owned broadcaster CCTV reported Sunday that certain counties and development zones in Xi’an had begun restoring production, citing a news conference by Xi’an officials.

Covax Deliveries Reach One Billion (6:31 a.m. NY)

A cargo of vaccines that arrived in Rwanda pushed Covax, the program created to deliver Covid-19 inoculations more equitably, over the one-billion mark in shots delivered so far, the World Health Organization said.  

Of 194 member states, 36 countries have vaccinated less than 10% of their population, even as richer nations having moved on to provide citizens with their third or even fourth shots. 

Indonesia Expects Wave to Peak by Early March (6:30 a.m. NY)

The current wave of cases in Indonesia could peak in mid-February or early March, said Luhut Panjaitan, the minister who is overseeing the pandemic response.

The government has no plans to impose tighter restrictions despite daily new cases exceeding 1,000 on Jan. 15 for the first time since October. People should limit gatherings and avoid in-person meetings unless necessary to curb the spread of the virus, Panjaitan said. 

Saudi Arabia Starts Vaccinations in Children From Five Years Old (4:20 p.m. HK)

Saudi Arabia will begin vaccinating children aged from 5 to 11 against coronavirus, the Ministry of Health said in a tweet.

People in Saudi Arabia can now take the third vaccine dose, or booster, three months after the second dose. In December, Saudi Arabia advised citizens to avoid “unnecessary” travel outside the country amid rising coronavirus cases and the new omicron variant.

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