Global health experts gather on Thursday to tackle new strains of the coronavirus blamed for a fresh surge in infections after China recorded its first COVID-19 death in eight months.
The World Health Organization (WHO) emergency committee session comes with their colleagues seeking the origins of the virus on a long-delayed mission to the pandemic ground zero in Wuhan.
Almost two million of the more than 91 million people who have caught the disease have died, but the figures are widely believed to be an underestimate.
Much of the planet is facing a second or third wave of infections, with populations chafing under painful and economically damaging restrictions.
Lebanon went into full lockdown on Thursday with residents barred even from grocery shopping.
France is hoping to avoid another national lockdown with the government due to announce tighter controls such as an extended night curfew across the country.
But there was better news for those who have already had Covid-19, with a British study suggesting recovery can confer immunity for at least five months.
The research will be welcomed by UK healthcare workers struggling to cope with surging caseloads and a new, more infectious strain of the virus.
That strain, and another identified in South Africa, was going under the WHO microscope in Geneva on Thursday after being logged in dozens of countries.
WHO’s emergency committee normally gathers every three months, but the meeting was brought forward “to consider issues that need urgent discussion”.
In China, millions of people have been locked down again to try to tame a fresh outbreak that has now claimed its first victim.
– Long journey –
The hashtag “New virus death in Hebei” quickly ratcheted up 100 million views on the Twitter-like Weibo platform.
“I haven’t seen the words ‘virusdeath’ in so long, it’s a bit shocking! I hope the epidemic can pass soon,” one user wrote.
The death comes as a 10-strong investigation team arrived in Wuhan, where the virus emerged in late 2019.
Mission leader Peter Ben Embarek said they would enter a two-week hotel quarantine before the probe begins in earnest.
It “could be a very long journey before we get a full understanding of what happened.” he cautioned.
Beijing has argued Wuhan might not be where the virus originated, only where it was first identified.
Regardless of origins, scientists say large-scale vaccination is the only way out.
Inoculation campaigns have kicked off in a number of countries, although progress has often been slow.
In the United States, where more than 4,000 people are dying every day, around 10 million have received a first shot.
Turkish medics rolled up their sleeves on Thursday as the nation of 83 million launched a vaccination drive with China’s Sinovac jab despite conflicting data abouts its efficacy.
Preliminary studies involving more than 7,000 volunteers in Turkey showed it to be 91.25 percent effective.
A bigger trial in Brazil showed 50.4 percent efficacy and a third in Indonesia gave 65.3 percent.
In Africa, where many countries have so far avoided the worst of the pandemic, governments were urged to take urgent steps to prepare for vaccine distribution.
“We cannot wait,” said John Nkengasong, director of the continent’s health watchdog, after the African Union secured 270 million doses.
“We have to do it quick. Our economies are down, our people are dying.”
At the Vatican, Pope Francis, aged 84, and his predecessor, former pope Benedict XVI, 93, have both received vaccines, the Vatican said Thursday.
However former world tennis number one Andy Murray has reportedly returned a positive coronavirus test throwing his participation in the Australian Open into doubt.
He was among 1,200 players due to travel to Melbourne for 14 days’ quarantine ahead of the delayed tournament starting February 8.
One million pilgrims
Sport has provided some diversion for many trapped at home, but top-flight athletes were warned this week to lead by example.
English Premier League bosses warned clubs they could be sanctioned if players shake hands or hug after goals.
EPL chief executive Richard Masters said the Premier League “must take the lead in setting the right example to follow”.
However a British lawmaker branded footballers “brainless”.
“Some of the scenes we have seen have been brainless and give out an awful message,” said Julian Knight, chairman of the House of Commons Media and Sport committee.
In India, up to a million Hindu pilgrims were massing by the Ganges river on Thursday for the Kumbh Mela festival outside the northern town of Haridwar.
“The pandemic is a bit of a worry, but we are taking all precautions,” said organiser Siddharth Chakrapani.
“I’m sure Maa Ganga will take care of their safety,” he said, referring to the sacred river.