The UK coronavirus strain has spread to at least 60 countries, the World Health Organization reported yesterday, as 1.6 million residents were banned from leaving Beijing after two cases linked to the new strain were found in the Chinese capital.
Covid-19 has claimed more than two million lives globally since it was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan more than a year ago, while the total number of reported cases is edging towards 100 million.
The arrival of mass inoculation drives in the United States, Europe and Asia had brought hope that the end of the epidemic was in sight.
But deep concern over new variants of the deadly pathogen has triggered governments around the world to toughen constraints on restriction-weary populations as officials grapple with how to slow infections until vaccines become widely available.
In its weekly update, the WHO announced the strain first found in the UK was now in 10 more countries than seven days ago.
It said the South African variant -- which similarly is believed to be more transmissible -- has been reported in 23 countries and territories.
The global health body also said schools should only close as a last resort while research is under way into whether the new variants affect children differently.
"The arrival in late 2020 of new more transmissible variants of SARS-CoV-2 requires additional analysis by sex and age to measure how and if the new variants impact children differently," it said.
"If it is found that children are more affected, public health social measures may need to be adapted."
The number of new deaths climbed to a record high of 93,000 over the previous week, it added, with 4.7 million new cases reported over the same period.
Meanwhile, the latest research has revealed that the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech is likely to protect against the new variant.
The encouraging results from an analysis of blood of participants in trials are based on more extensive analysis than those released by the US drugmaker last week.
Last week, Pfizer said a similar laboratory study showed the vaccine was effective against one key mutation, called N501Y, found in two highly transmissible new variants spreading in Britain and South Africa.
The latest study, posted on bioRxiv.org but not yet peer reviewed, was conducted on a synthetic virus with 10 mutations that are characteristic of the variant known as B117 identified in Britain.
INDIA EXPORTS VACCINES
India started delivering coronavirus vaccines to its neighbours yesterday, the foreign ministry said, flagging off a drive to garner goodwill in an often fractious region with the first shipment sent to the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
Bangladesh and Nepal said they expect deliveries today. The only neighbour absent from India's list apart from China, is regional rival Pakistan, which had not requested assistance, according to an Indian government official.
Many low and middle-income countries are relying on India, the world's biggest vaccine maker, for supplies to start Covid-19 immunisation programmes and bring an end to their outbreaks, reports Reuters.
"The Pharmacy of the World will deliver to overcome the COVID challenge," Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar said on Twitter, adding the first vaccine lots had reached Bhutan and the Maldives.
His ministry said on Tuesday "supplies under grant assistance" would be shipped to Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and the Seychelles also. Shipments to Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Mauritius were awaiting regulatory clearances.
India authorised two vaccines this month for emergency use at home, one licensed from Oxford University and AstraZeneca and another developed at home by Bharat Biotech in partnership with the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research. Both are manufactured locally.
BIDEN LEADS TRIBUTES
The US is by far the worst-hit nation with more than 400,000 deaths, and Biden focused on healing at a memorial for victims on the eve of his inauguration as president.
Almost a year after the US registered its first fatality, the pace of the pandemic has picked up with 100,000 deaths in the past month alone.
"It's hard sometimes to remember, but that's how we heal. It's important to do that as a nation," Biden said in sombre remarks on Tuesday in Washington at the National Mall reflecting pool, where lights were turned on as a memorial to those who have died.
"Let us shine the lights in the darkness along the sacred pool of reflection and remember all who we lost," Biden said.
In China, which has largely brought the virus under control, a partial lockdown was imposed on the capital Beijing yesterday, with 1.6 million residents banned from leaving the city.
The country is battling its largest resurgence of Covid-19 cases in nearly a year, although the official figures are startlingly low compared to the rest of the world: just seven cases were reported in Beijing yesterday.
Authorities ordered residents of the southern Beijing district of Daxing -- which includes one of the city's two international airports -- to remain indoors.
But in Wuhan, the city of 11 million people now synonymous with the coronavirus, there were scenes of relaxation and travel freedoms this week.
Wet markets throng with shoppers, elderly dancers rehearse in the parks, and bars sell "Wuhan Stay Strong" craft beer.
"Wuhan had a tough year in 2020," Wang Chen, a 20-year-old resident, told AFP outside the exhibition, adding that China "handled the crisis very well."
Meanwhile, on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, dozens of foreigners caught without masks have been subjected to an unusual punishment -- push-ups in the street.
Video footage showed people in T-shirts and shorts doing the vigorous exercise on pavements in the sweltering tropical heat, as masked security officials stood over them.