(Bloomberg) --

Scientists in South Africa are studying a recently identified new coronavirus variant of concern, stoking fears the country may face a potentially severe fourth wave that could spread internationally. U.K. authorities will temporarily ban flights from six African countries and place travelers into quarantine over worries about the new, dramatically different viral strain. 

The European Union’s drug regulator has recommended the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children aged 5 to 11. Separately, the EU plans to limit vaccine validity for travel purposes to nine months, signaling the need for boosters. Germany passed 100,000 Covid-19 deaths, with new infections still rising and hospitals in some cities becoming overwhelmed.

Governments around Europe, the pandemic’s epicenter again, are considering reintroducing measures to curb the resurgence of the virus, including compulsory shots in Germany, restrictions for unvaccinated people in Italy, and mask mandates in Denmark. Portugal will require remote working after the holidays. 

Key Developments:

  • Virus Tracker: Cases exceed 259.9 million; deaths pass 5.17 million
  • Vaccine Tracker: More than 7.83 billion shots given
  • The winners and losers from a year of ranking Covid resilience
  • U.K. paid a deadly price to avoid Europe’s latest crisis
  • Europe’s hard line lifts vaccine demand in reluctant east
  • How Singapore could avoid a Europe-style Covid resurgence

U.K. Bans Some Africa Flights Over Variant Worries (5:06 p.m. NY)

U.K. authorities will temporarily ban flights from six African countries and place travelers into quarantine over worries about a new, dramatically different Covid-19 variant recently identified there. 

The travel restrictions go into effect at noon Friday and are a precautionary measure to keep the spread of the new variant in check, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said. The six countries will be placed on the U.K.’s red list, which requires travelers to quarantine in hotels upon arrival in the U.K.

Israel also banned travel from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini due to the new coronavirus variant, according to BNO News without citing the source of the information.

H.K. Meets China Conditions for Opening Border: Lee (3:42 p.m. NY)

Representatives from the mainland authorities consider that Hong Kong has fulfilled the basic conditions for quarantine-free travel with China, Chief Secretary John Lee says at a briefing after meeting in Shenzhen.

He said Hong Kong’s government will implement further measures to prepare for reopening, including rolling out health code, requesting high-risk groups for more testing.

France Tightens Travel Rules (2:45 p.m. NY)

France will strengthen rules for incoming travelers who aren’t vaccinated or are coming from countries with high rates of Covid-19 or virus variants, Health Minister Olivier Veran said Thursday in a TF1 television interview.

The government earlier announced booster shots would be made more widely available and masks mandatory. Veran also said health passes and testing would be required at ski resorts in a bid to keep them open this season after lifts were shut for part of last season.

France has reported a surge in new daily cases in recent weeks, reaching 33,464 on Thursday.

Portugal Requires Post-Holiday Work-From-Home (1:27 p.m. NY)

The Portuguese government said remote working will be mandatory in the week of Jan. 2-9 as it tries to prevent a spike in coronavirus infections after the Christmas and New Year holiday break.

Schools will reopen on Jan. 10, a week later than previously planned, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said on Thursday at a press conference in Lisbon. Until that first week of January, remote working will be recommended when possible.

From December, the use of masks will become mandatory in closed spaces, digital certificates will be needed to access restaurants and negative tests will be required for nightclubs and bars. Masks are currently already required on public transport. 

South Africa Warns on New Variant (12:20 p.m. NY)

Scientists in South Africa are studying a recently identified new coronavirus variant of concern, stoking fears the country may face a potentially severe fourth wave that could spread internationally.

The new discovery, called B.1.1529 until a Greek letter is assigned, carries an unusually large number of mutations and is “clearly very different” from previous incarnations, Tulio de Oliveira, a bio-informatics professor who runs gene-sequencing institutions at two South African universities, said at a briefing on Thursday.  

“Here is a mutation variant of serious concern,” Health Minister Joe Phaahla said at the same media event. Virologists have detected almost 100 cases linked to the variant in the country to date. 

Czechs Tighten Curbs Without Lockdown (11:22 a.m. NY)

The outgoing Czech government tightened social-distancing measures to stem a record spike in Covid-19 infections but refrained from declaring a hard lockdown imposed in neighboring Austria and Slovakia.

The cabinet ordered restaurants, clubs and bars to close at 10 p.m. and imposed limits for attendance at public events, Health Minister Adam Vojtech said on Thursday. As some hospitals are already overrun with patients, Vojtech expects new coronavirus cases to continue rising and sees the current wave culminating around Christmas. 

Study Shows Moderna Most Effective (11:12 a.m. NY)

The Moderna Inc. and Russian Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccines both edged the version from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE in effectiveness in a large-scale study of five different immunization shots conducted by Hungarian researchers.

Moderna’s vaccine was 88.7% effective in protecting against coronavirus infection and 93.6% effective against Covid-related mortality, compared with 85.7% and 95.4%, respectively for Sputnik, according to the paper published Wednesday on the website of the Clinical Microbiology and Infection medical journal. Pfizer came in third with 83.3% and 90.6%, respectively. 

Singapore Cases Slow (10:44 a.m. NY)

Singapore reported the lowest number of cases found in the community since Sept. 25, according to the Ministry of Health. The city-state detected a total of 1,275 new infections as of noon Nov. 25, down from 2,079 on the previous day.

Outbreak Hits Vermont Nursing Home (9:53 a.m. NY)

An outbreak at a Vermont nursing home has infected 70 people and left two dead, the Bennington Banner reported. More than 186,000 residents and staff at U.S. long-term care facilities have died since the start of the pandemic, according to AARP, though vaccines have considerably slowed spread among the elderly. 

Belgium to Evaluate New Restrictions (9:23 a.m. NY)

Belgium’s federal and regional governments will meet tomorrow for an evaluation of virus restrictions enacted less than a week ago, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo tells lawmakers in parliament in Brussels on Thursday.

Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke says in parliament he will plead for immediate measures in schools, in people’s private life and in industries, without elaborating.

Denmark Opens Boosters to All Adults (9:18 a.m. NY)

Denmark has expanded its official guidelines to include re-vaccination of all adults, the Danish Health Authority said on Thursday. Every Dane over the age of 18 will now be invited to get a booster shot, six months after receiving the second shot. The invitation had until now only been given to people above the age of 65, health staff, people with chronic diseases and those, who initially were vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson shot. 

Finland Curbs Bars and Restaurants (9:12 a.m. NY)

Finland’s government is preparing to stop alcohol sales after 5 p.m. in bars and restaurants, telling them to close latest at 6 p.m., unless the establishments require patrons to provide a Covid certificate. Cafes and fast-food restaurants could operate without requiring the corona passport.

Vaccine in Pregnancy Showed No Effect on Babies (9:04 a.m. NY)

The rate of stillbirth or low birthweight in babies born to the more than 24,000 vaccinated mothers who delivered between January and August was the same as those in unvaccinated women, according to data released by the U.K. Health Security Agency Thursday. The number of premature births was also similar.

Babies born to women vaccinated against Covid-19 in England showed no difference in birth outcomes, bolstering the safety profile of the shots during pregnancy.

EU Regulator Clears Pfizer Vaccine for 5-11 Year-Olds (6:59 a.m. NY)

The EU’s drug regulator approved use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children aged 5 to 11, saying the benefits outweigh the risks. The two-shot regimen for younger kids is one-third the dose that’s given to those 12 and older. 

The current wave of the pandemic in Europe has increasingly affected children, either because they’re directly infected or because of school and day-care classes sent into quarantine. Though Covid doesn’t usually hit children as hard as it does adults, it can spread via children to more vulnerable people. 

It will probably take a few weeks to ship the lower-dose shots for children, Germany’s health minister said earlier this week, before the agency’s recommendation.

France Recommends Boosters for All Adults (6:58 p.m. HK)

France is rolling out booster shots to all adults as it seeks to tackle the epidemic wave, Health Minister Olivier Veran told a news conference in Paris on Thursday.

The length of time between primary vaccination and a booster shot will be shortened to five months from six, in line with recommendations from the country’s health authority.

Daily coronavirus cases are surging in France, rising above 30,000 for the past two days. “This fifth wave will be unquestionably stronger and longer than the fourth wave,” Veran said, but no new lockdowns or curfews are planned.

Shanghai Sees New Cases (6:29 a.m. NY)

China’s financial hub Shanghai reported three local Covid-19 infections. Three residential blocks have been classified as medium-risk areas, just after the country had managed to quell the widest outbreak of the virus since it emerged two years ago. 

Hangzhou, a city that’s just one hour by high-speed train from Shanghai, also reported two asymptomatic cases. 

The latest flareup, the first in Shanghai in about three months, may raise questions about whether China’s Covid Zero approach will be sustainable in the long run.

Pfizer Protection Wanes After Second Dose (4:42 p.m. HK) 

People vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech shot start losing immunity about three months after their second dose, according to a study conducted in Israel and published Thursday in the British Medical Journal. The findings confirm the waning of protection, which is why many countries now advise boosters.

EU to Update Vaccine-Validity Limit for Travel (4:36 p.m. HK)

The European Union will recommend a 9-month time limit for the validity of Covid-19 vaccinations for travel into the bloc and also propose prioritizing vaccinated travelers. 

Member states should continue welcoming all travelers inoculated with shots approved by the bloc, according to a document seen by Bloomberg. It also calls for countries to reopen as of Jan. 10 to all those who have used vaccines approved by the World Health Organization.

The proposed updates suggest that boosters will be needed beyond the 9-month period.

Germany Passes 100,000 Deaths (10:36 a.m. HK)

Germany passed the threshold of 100,000 Covid-19 deaths, with the latest wave of the pandemic still pushing new infections higher and hospitals in some hotspots under severe pressure.

Since the pandemic took hold at the beginning of last year, 100,119 people have died from the virus, according to the latest data from the RKI public-health institute. RKI also reported a record 75,961 new Covid-19 cases. 

Germany’s death toll is still lower than in the U.K., France or Italy, which each passed 100,000 some time ago. The U.S. has recorded the most fatalities with more than 770,000, following by Brazil with over 610,000, according to the Bloomberg Covid-19 Tracker.

Earlier, Olaf Scholz, who will succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, said his coalition government would consider vaccine mandates for people who work with vulnerable groups. 

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.