Photo taken on December 21, 2020 shows the empty Westminster Bridge in front of Houses of Parliament in London, Britain (XINHUA)
New COVID-19 strains
On December 20, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned that a new strain of COVID-19 was "out of control" in Britain.
"It is going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out," he said. "We know with this new variant you can catch it more easily from a small amount of the virus being present."
The British government's Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance has said the new variant was first seen in mid-September in London and Kent.
By December, the new variant had become the "dominant variant" in London, and by the week ending Dec. 9, it had accounted for 62 percent of cases in London, 59 percent of those in eastern England, and 43 percent in the southeast, according to Vallance.
Days later, two cases of another new variant of the virus were also identified in Britain.
"Both are contacts of cases who have travelled from South Africa over the past few weeks," Hancock said On December 23.
This new variant is "yet more transmissible" and the development is "highly concerning," he said.
The cases and close contacts of the cases found in Britain are being quarantined, and the British government is placing "immediate restrictions" on travel from South Africa, according to Hancock.
Meanwhile, another new variant of the coronavirus appears to have emerged in Nigeria, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said on December 24.
"It's a separate lineage from the UK and South Africa," John Nkengasong, head of the Africa CDC, told reporters, adding more investigations are needed.
So far, the new variants have been detected in Australia, Denmark, Italy, Iceland, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada and Japan, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and media reports.
The new COVID-19 strains have complicated the world's fight against the pandemic and prompted countries around the world to tighten their restrictive measures, including travel bans.
From December 26, another 6 million people in England have been placed under the highest Tier Four restrictions, while Scotland and Northern Ireland have also imposed tougher measures on their citizens.
London and many other parts of England have already been under Tier Four restrictions, which require residents in the areas to stay at home, with limited exemptions. People are also urged to work from home when they can.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government has decided to temporarily ban the entry of most foreign nationals as a precaution to curb the potential spread of the new COVID-19 strains.
The entry ban will start on Monday and last through Jan. 31 for the time being, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said in a statement late Saturday.
Earlier, Japan imposed a temporary ban on new arrivals of foreign nationals from Britain for purposes such as business or study, in response to the new and highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus found there.
In Brazil, authorities have banned the entry of foreigners via land or coastal borders, and all flights from Britain, or with stops there, according to the special edition of a government gazette issued late Wednesday.
The provision, signed by the ministries of health, justice and public security, and the president's office, took effect on Friday, and it has also barred the entry of any foreigner who has been in Britain in the past 14 days.
After the announcement about the new virus strain in Britain, the Netherlands became the first major European country to announce a ban on flights to Britain, followed by neighboring Belgium which also halted Britain-bound trains using the Channel Tunnel.
More countries, including Canada, Switzerland, France and Germany, are also following suit to ban flights from Britain amid rising concerns over the highly infectious new strains.
An electronic sign showing "French Borders Closed" is seen at the closed Port of Dover in Dover, Britain, on December 22 (XINHUA)
Race for vaccines
In the face of the new COVID-19 strains, countries across the globe are still pinning their hopes of defeating the pandemic on vaccines, as experts suggest that no evidence has yet been found that the new strains could affect the effectiveness of the potential vaccines.
According to the WHO, as of December 16, 222 COVID-19 candidate vaccines were being developed worldwide, with 56 of them under clinical trials.
"So far, even though we've seen a number of changes, a number of mutations, none has made a significant impact on either the susceptibility of the virus to any of the currently used therapeutics, drugs or the vaccines under development," WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said at a press briefing.
The coronavirus has mutated at a much slower rate than the influenza virus, according to Swaminathan.
In Chile, the government on Friday launched a vaccination drive against COVID-19 in the southern regions of Magallanes, Araucania and Biobio, the country's hardest hit regions in the pandemic.
Zulema Riquelme, a 46-year-old nursing technician, receives a shot of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Metropolitan Hospital in Santiago, Chile, December 24 (XINHUA)
Other countries, including Slovenia, Spain and Malta, have received their first batches of COVID-19 vaccines and are planning mass vaccination campaigns.
The first shipment of 3 million doses of Chinese vaccine producer Sinovac's inactivated vaccine CoronaVac will arrive in Turkey on Monday after the Turkish government signed an agreement for the procurement of up to 50 million doses, which will eventually arrive in the country by the end of February.
"We are sure that the vaccine is effective and safe for Turkish people," said Health Minister Fahrettin Koca at a press conference.
The new strains mean "we have to work harder," said Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program. "Even if the virus has become a little bit more efficient in spreading, the virus can be stopped."