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Britain announces new COVID-19 restrictions; India to vaccinate 300M

Customers shop Saturday at Burlington Arcade in London after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivered a televised statement announcing more restrictions. Photo by Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA-EFE
Customers shop Saturday at Burlington Arcade in London after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivered a televised statement announcing more restrictions. Photo by Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA-EFE

Dec. 19 (UPI) -- Britain plans to put tighter coronavirus restrictions in place this weekend after scientists advised Prime Minister Boris Johnson that a new variant of the virus is spreading more quickly.

Johnson said he "bitterly regretted" instituting the restrictions, under which non-essential shops, gyms, movie theaters, salons and bowling alleys will close for two weeks.

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Also under the new restrictions, people will be restricted to meeting individuals from other households if they do so in an outdoor public space -- except on Christmas Day, when up to three households will be able to meet for the holidays.

"The message is that this is the year to lift a glass to those who aren't there, in the knowledge that it's precisely because they're not there to celebrate Christmas with you this year that we all have a better chance that they'll be there next year," Johnson said.

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Chris Whitty, Britain's chief medical officer, said Saturday that British health officials have informed the World Health Organization about the new strain of the virus, which health officials announced publicly earlier this week.

"As announced on Monday, the U.K. has identified a new variant of COVID-19 through Public Health England's genomic surveillance," Whitty said.

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Meanwhile, as India's COVID-19 cases surpassed 10 million people Saturday, the country announced plans to vaccinate 300 million people starting in January.

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The Indian government identified 300 million people to receive the first vaccine doses, CNN reported.

The group includes 270 million vulnerable people, mostly above age 50, and others with serious comorbidities, and 30 million healthcare workers, policemen, soldiers and volunteers.

Three producers of coronavirus vaccines have applied for emergency use authorization, and each of them requires vaccinations to be administered in two doses, which means 600 million shots.

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The Indian government plans to complete the process by August for the initial group being vaccinated, which is nearly the size of the U.S. population. India already has an established network under its Universal Immunization Program, which inoculates about 55 million a year.

The country's public health system is already under pressure from having the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases worldwide, trailing only the United States, and having the third-highest number of deaths, trailing the United States and Brazil.

The rollout of the vaccinations is expected to begin in January, federal health officials told the BBC.

Two of the vaccine candidates pending approval from Indian regulators are being locally manufactured. One is Serum Institute of India's Covishield, which Oxford University and AstraZeneca developed. The other is India's homegrown vaccine Covaxin, which Bharat Biotech and the government-run Indian Council of Medical Research jointly developed.

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The third is the Pfizer and BioNTech-developed vaccine out of the United States. Dr. VK Paul, head of the national expert group on COVID-19 vaccination, confirmed to CNN that Pfizer India has applied for emergency use authorization.

India surpassed the 10 million-case mark Saturday, adding nearly a million cases in one month, according to the Union Health Ministry data.

The health ministry added that there were 347 new COVID-19 deaths in a 24-hour span, bringing the total death toll to 145,136.

In Switzerland, health regulator Swissmedic has approved the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for use in anyone age 16 and older, subject to compliance with the government's official recommendations.

The Pfizer vaccine has also been approved in Britain, Canada, the United States and other countries.

Switzerland also has signed agreements with vaccine manufacturers Moderna and AstraZeneca.

Since the pandemic began, Switzerland has had 403,989 cases and 6,561 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University global tracker.

In Australia, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has locked down Sydney's Northern Beaches until midnight Wednesday after COVID-19 cases were linked to the area.

Twenty-one of 23 new COVID-19 cases reported Friday were linked directly to an outbreak at Avalon Beach near Sydney, Berejiklian said, adding that the two others are under investigation.

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The Northern Beaches lockdown means that people were asked to stay home and not enter the beaches except for "essential reasons," such as work, compassionate grounds, exercise and shopping.

The premier warned that the restrictions could be extended across Greater Sydney if warranted.

Since the pandemic began, Australia has reported 28,128 cases of COVID-19 and 908 related deaths.

The United States has the most cases and the most deaths at over 17 million cases and 313,764 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Brazil has the third-highest number of cases at over 7 million and the second-highest number of deaths at 185,650.

Worldwide, COVID-19 has infected over 75 million people and killed over 1.6 million people.

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