Coronavirus live news: record number of Czechs in hospital with serious Covid; 10m fake N95 masks seized in US

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Singapore has launched what it billed as a coronavirus-secure hotel and meeting complex where visitors communicate via intercom through glass panels, AFP reports.

Short-stay business travellers to Singapore will be able to avoid the official 14-day quarantine rule if they stay at Connect@Changi, a purpose-built facility near Changi Airport. They will, however, be required to remain within the facility for the duration of their stay to prevent possible transmission to the wider community.

“The resumption of business travel and international meetings is important for catalysing economic recovery, in Singapore and the region,” the deputy prime minister, Heng Swee Keat, said. It will “preserve our role as a global business hub”, he added at the launch of the complex, which will receive its first guests in March.

Upon arrival at the airport, guests will be “bubble wrapped” – meaning they will be tested and then ferried directly to the facility. The complex will initially have 150 guest rooms which will later be expanded to 660, each with a shelf outside where staff can leave meals without coming into contact with guests.

A red light stays illuminated outside their room until their test comes back negative and then they can go about their business within the complex. They are tested regularly during their stay and prior to departure.

A general view of the Connect@Changi meeting room installed with glass divider.
A general view of the Connect@Changi meeting room installed with glass divider. Photograph: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

Updated at 8.36am EST

Saudi Arabia’s food and drug administration has approved the Covid vaccine made by AstraZeneca, state TV reports.

Deputy minister for public health Hani Jokhdar said that the kingdom now had capacity to give 200,000 Covid-19 vaccinations per day. “We will be able to deliver 1.4 million doses every week,” he said, according to the Hindustan Times, with plans to roll out the AstraZeneca vaccine this weekend.

It has already administered 460,000 shots among its population of about 34 million, with the Pfizer jab. The kingdom has reported more than 370,000 coronavirus cases and 6,000 deaths.

According to the Hindustan Times, Jokhdar said vaccination would not be compulsory, and that people would not be able to choose which company’s shot they received. Saudi Arabia plans to vaccinate 70% of the elderly and those with chronic diseases by the June.

Updated at 8.21am EST

Turkey has vaccinated more than 5 million people with the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac as part of a campaign launched one month ago, health ministry data shows.

Ankara launched the vaccinations on 14 January, starting with health workers and the elderly. By Thursday afternoon more than 5.2 million people had received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the data. About 900,000 of them, including senior government officials, had received a second dose, Reuters reports.

Turkey plans to vaccinate teachers later this month ahead of a nationwide re-opening of schools on 1 March. President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that Turkey would begin a gradual return to normal life in March on a province-by-province basis.

Turkey, which has a population of 82 million, has reported more than 2.6 million infections and about 27,000 deaths from Covid-19 since March, and in December imposed weekend lockdowns, nightly curfews and other curbs in the face of rising cases.

Updated at 8.36am EST

Protesters in Spain have been flouting coronavirus restrictions to protest against the imprisonment of a rapper who had posted tweets insulting police and the Spanish monarchy.

More than 50 people were arrested and dozens injured during a second night of protests yesterday that turned violent in several Spanish cities.

The protests began peacefully late Wednesday in dozens of Spanish provincial capitals and other towns in the northeastern Catalonia region, home to the rapper Pablo Hasél, AP reports. But as the evening wore on there were clashes.

Thousands demand Pablo Hasel rapper’s release in Madrid.
Thousands demand Pablo Hasel rapper’s release in Madrid. Photograph: Juan Carlos Lucas/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

In Madrid, Barcelona and smaller cities, anti-riot police fired rubber or foam bullets at baton-charged protesters, who threw objects at officers and set trash containers alight. Some used overturned motorbikes to block streets amid rioting.

The rapper and his supporters say that Hasél’s nine-month sentence for writing a critical song about the former King Juan Carlos I and dozens of tweets that judges said glorified some of Spain’s extinct terrorist groups violates free speech rights.

More than 200 cultural figures, including the film director Pedro Almodóvar and actor Javier Bardem, have signed a petition against his jail sentence.

Demonstrators clash with police during a protest against the arrest of Catalan rapper Pablo Hasel in Barcelona, Spain, on Thursday.
Demonstrators clash with police during a protest against the arrest of Catalan rapper Pablo Hasel in Barcelona, Spain, on Thursday. Photograph: Albert Gea/Reuters

Updated at 8.25am EST

A laboratory study suggests that the South African variant of the coronavirus may reduce antibody protection from the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine by two-thirds, and it is not clear if the shot will be effective against the mutation, the companies have said.

The study found the vaccine was still able to neutralise the virus and there is not yet evidence from trials in people that the variant reduces vaccine protection, the companies said. Still, they are making investments and talking to regulators about developing an updated version of their mRNA vaccine, or a booster shot, if needed, Reuters reports.

South African scientists will meet later on Thursday to discuss the study in advance of advising government ministers (see 9.05am).

It comes after research suggested the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine offers as little as 10% protection against the Covid variant first seen in South Africa, leading the country to halt its planned rollout of the jab.

Updated at 7.32am EST

All mink farms are at risk of becoming infected with Covid-19 and spreading the virus, and staff and animals should be regularly tested, EU disease and food safety experts have warned.

My colleagues Tom Levitt and Sophie Kevany report that mink are highly susceptible to coronavirus, which spreads rapidly in intensive farms that often breed thousands of animals in open housing caged systems (outdoor wire cages covered with a roof). Humans are the most likely initial source of infection.

Denmark, the world’s largest exporter of mink fur, announced that it would cull up to 15 million mink in November, after discovering a mutated variant of the virus that scientists feared might have jeopardised the effectiveness of future vaccines.

Updated at 7.32am EST

China has accused Taiwan of “carrying out political manipulation and hyping up political issues”.

The foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, added: “We wish to provide necessary assistance Taiwanese compatriots in their fight against the epidemic,” without addressing whether China had played any role in a delayed vaccine deal.

The Taiwanese health minister, Chen Shih-chung, said yesterday that negotiations with German firm BioNTech to acquire 5m shots of its vaccine developed jointly with Pfizer fell through in December “because someone doesn’t want Taiwan to be too happy”.

His comments raised concerns China might be trying to hinder Taiwan’s inoculation drive, AFP reports.

In a statement earlier today (see 4.14am), BioNTech said discussions to supply Taiwan with doses were still ongoing.

“BioNTech is committed to help bringing an end to the pandemic for people across the world and we intend to supply Taiwan with our vaccine as part of this global commitment,” it said.

Beijing regards democratic and self-ruled Taiwan as its own territory and tries to keep the island diplomatically isolated – including keeping it locked out of the World Health Organization.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying at a press conference last month.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying at a press conference last month. Photograph: Carlos García Rawlins/Reuters

Updated at 7.24am EST

Police in Brazil are investigating allegations that healthcare workers are giving fake Covid inoculations, amid reports of nurses injecting people with empty syringes.

Cases of what local media are calling “wind vaccination” have been reported in four states, adding to the woes of the country’s halting and uncoordinated immunisation programme.

Police announced a criminal investigation on Wednesday, amid speculation that the nurses were either anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists, or were pocketing vaccine shots to be sold on the black market.

Carla Domingues, an epidemiologist who coordinated Brazil’s national immunisation programme between 2011 and 2019, said:

This initially seemed an isolated case, but, although they are still exceptions, it is very concerning that we are seeing this in several places. Either these health professionals were poorly trained or they did it in bad faith. In both cases it is inadmissible.

Updated at 7.00am EST

Joe Biden and his team have promised to extend the bipartisan olive branch like no previous administration in a move that on the surface appears to match the new president’s long political history of seeking support from Republicans.

Since taking office, the Biden administration has stressed a willingness to work with Republicans on its major initiatives such as a Covid relief bill. Behind the scenes, it has initiated a broad push to reach out to as many congressional offices as possible, getting in contact with both former and current Republican lawmakers and their staffs, and hosting a high-visibility meeting between almost a dozen Republican senators and Biden himself.

But, it seems that the president’s outreach – perhaps to the relief of the party’s left and observers long used to cynical Republican obstructionism – has its limits when it comes to actual decision-making.

Updated at 6.59am EST

France’s ski resorts cannot operate their lifts under the country’s tight Covid restrictions. But Courchevel, a favourite in normal years with Britons and Russians, has opened a single run that can be reached by car, Reuters reports.

“It’s good for learning because we repeat the run over and over,” said one skier. The resort has opened the piste for the February school holidays when the French traditionally decamp to the mountains. Although lifts aren’t operating, the resort is 40% full this week, according to the tourism office.

From Courchevel’s hotels and chalets to the top of the run above the resort’s small mountain airport is a 20-minute drive. Police make sure no one parks up – it is strictly drop-off only.

Another skier said:

We didn’t expect to be able to ski this year! It’s a bit tedious to take the car, but it’s worth the effort. We feel very lucky.

The resort normally boasts access to the world’s largest ski area, known as Les 3 Vallées, with about 600km of slopes.

Local businesses – from ski hire shops to restaurants – will lose an estimated 90% of their revenues this season. Government financial aid will only plug some of the hole.

Les 3 Vallées (@3Vallees_france)

The Cote Brune chairlift misses you...
📸 @mh2ski #meribel #WeWillSkiAgain #Les3Vallees #MyPlayground pic.twitter.com/CBatNEsOr0

February 17, 2021

Mattha Busby here taking over from my colleague Jedidajah Otte. Good morning, good afternoon and good evening to everyone reading. Drop me a line on Twitter or via email mattha.busby.freelance@guardian.co.uk with any tips or thoughts.

Updated at 6.58am EST

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