A medical staff member (C) wearing protective gear in a booth prepares to give tests for COVID-19 at a temporary testing station outside the City Hall in Seoul, South Korea, on December 23, 2020. (Photo by AFP)
The global number of confirmed coronavirus cases has topped 78 million, and a new, more infectious variant of the deadly virus is now threatening the world.
Just as vaccines were expected to become widely available in months, the new mutation of the virus - which first emerged in England - has sparked panic across Europe.
The continent has become the first region on the earth to cross a threshold of 500,000 coronavirus-related deaths.
Across the globe, the number of coronavirus deaths has now crossed 1,717,124, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The discovery of the new variant of the coronavirus, known as VUI-202012/01, has prompted a pre-Christmas lockdown and forced dozens of countries to close their borders to British travelers this week.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has called a meeting of members for Wednesday to discuss strategies to counter the new variant of the virus.
"Limiting travel to contain spread is prudent until we have better info," said Hans Kluge, the WHOís regional director for Europe.
Still, the WHO called for facilitating cargo transport for essential supplies such as food, medicines, and fuel.
"Supply chains for essential goods & essential travel should remain possible," Kluge tweeted.
France has already detected a patient infected with the new variant.
Nine cases were also confirmed in Denmark and a number of others in the Netherlands and Australia late on Sunday, according to the WHO.
Italy also reported a case of the variant on Sunday.
Relatives of COVID-19 victims in Italy to sue authorities
In Italy - the nation with the highest death toll in Europe - relatives of the victims are taking legal action against the prime minister and the health minister for alleged criminal negligence over their handling of the pandemic.
The group of 500 families will file their civil lawsuit on Wednesday with prosecutors in the Lombardy province of Bergamo.
They claim that the authorities have contributed to Italyís 69,842 coronavirus deaths.
"The government and region are responsible for violating rules and for dereliction of duties," said lawyer Consuelo Locati.
"The law obliged Italy to have an adequate national plan and for the regional authority to implement an adequate regional plan," she added.
The lawsuit claims that Italyís pandemic plan was outdated.
A WHO report revealed earlier this year that Romeís plan to face the health crisis dated back to 2006.
The report was published on the WHOís website in May, but taken down the following day, with all references to it deleted, The Guardian reported in August.
The country has so far had 1,977,370 cases of COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Stranded truckers wait to cross border to France
Franceís partial blockade on its border with Britain has left thousands of European truck drivers stranded in southeast England just days before Christmas.
Paris now allows drivers with a recent negative COVID-19 test to enter the country.
Britainís housing minister, Robert Jenrick, said the military would help set up testing sites across the southeast to get the trucks moving.
"I hope that this morning, youíll see people and HGVs (heavy goods vehicles) crossing the Channel at the short straits," he said.
It will take time to clear the backlog, though, he said.
Germany registers record daily death toll despite lockdown
Germany reported a record daily coronavirus death toll of 962 on Wednesday.
This comes as the county has been in lockdown since last week to curb the spread of the virus ahead of Christmas.
The total German death toll now stands at 27,968, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases.
Germany has seen a sharp rise in case numbers and deaths in recent months.
Across the nation, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases increased by 24,740 to 1,554,920, the RKIís tally showed on Wednesday.
Coronavirus arrives in Antarctica
The coronavirus has now reached the only continent in the world that it had so far spared, the Antarctica.
Chileís military reported this week that at least 36 people had been infected at its Bernardo OíHiggins base in the Antarctica.
Base personnel "are already properly isolated and constantly monitored" by health authorities in Magallanes, in Chilean Patagonia, the army said.
An army press officer said the first COVID-19 cases had been reported in mid-December, when two soldiers fell ill.
Chileís Navy also reported it had detected three cases of the viral infection among the 208 crew members of a ship that had sailed in the Antarctic region between late November and early December.
Japan to ban non-residents from UK
Japan will also ban the entry of non-Japanese people from Britain from Thursday, to prevent the spread of the new strain, top government spokesman said on Wednesday.
"The government will take border control steps flexibly to prevent the spread of the coronavirus within the nation," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato.
"We request people to refrain from making short visits to the UK," he said.
The country has so far reported 203,732 cases of COVID-19, along with 2,877 deaths.
South Koreaís Moon under fire over vaccination program
South Korean President Moon Jae-in came under pressure on Wednesday over his governmentís plans for vaccination.
The governmentís approach to securing newly developed vaccines are too relaxed and overly reliant on locally produced shots, according to critics.
South Korea is now struggling with a third wave of the pandemic.
Moonís office said on Tuesday that a public inoculation program would "not begin too late."
The government has previously said vaccinations could start as early as February.
South Korea reported 1,092 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the national tally to 52,550, with 739 deaths, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.
UAE rolls out free vaccination
In the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will start free vaccination of people from Wednesday.
Dubaiís Supreme Committee of Crisis and Disaster Management said late on Tuesday an "extensive vaccination campaign" against the outbreak would kick off in Dubai on Wednesday, using the Pfizer-BioNTechís vaccine.
The UAE has recorded 195,878 coronavirus cases and 642 deaths.
Oman will also receive its first Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shipment on Wednesday.
Qatar has also granted emergency use authorization for the vaccine, and Kuwait said it expected to start receiving the vaccine before the end of the year.