Factbox-Latest on the worldwide spread of the coronavirus
(Reuters) - Countries are moving swiftly to vaccinate more citizens and expand vaccine mandates, as an Omicron-driven surge in COVID-19 cases threatens to strain healthcare systems and forces suspension of companies' operations and event cancellations.
DEATHS AND INFECTIONS
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* Britain and Israel are overhauling their COVID-19 testing policies as governments seek to ease the burden on laboratories and struggle with tight supplies of kits amid soaring infection rates fuelled by the Omicron variant.
* Italy made COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for people from the age of 50, one of very few European countries to take similar steps.
* Top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci warned against complacency about the Omicron variant, saying the sheer number of cases could strain hospitals despite signs of lower severity.
* The U.S. Postal Service has asked the Biden administration for temporary relief from new vaccine or testing requirements covering large businesses for its 650,000 employees, warning of potentially "catastrophic" impacts.
* Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line cancelled sailings amid rising fears of Omicron-related infections.
* The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it expanded the eligibility of Pfizer/BioNTech's booster doses to those 12 to 15 years old.
* This year's Grammy Awards ceremony honouring top performances in music has been postponed indefinitely because of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
* Canadians are angered by people who are not vaccinated against COVID-19, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday, and he also promised more than 100 million rapid tests will be distributed quickly to provinces that are eagerly waiting.
* Brazil's Health Ministry said it will go ahead with the voluntary vaccination of children aged 5 to 11 years old against COVID-19 and dropped plans to require a doctor's prescription.
* India's new cases soared to 90,928 in the past 24 hours, the health ministry said, from 58,097 a day earlier.
* Thailand raised its COVID-19 alert level following rising infections.
* U.S. military bases in Japan introduced stricter COVID-19 measures after the government expressed grave concern about a surge of new infections and called for restrictions on the movement of U.S. personnel.
* Hong Kong announced a two-week ban on incoming flights from eight countries, including the United States and Britain, and tightened restrictions as authorities feared a fifth wave of infections.
AFRICA AND MIDDLE EAST
* Israel changed its quarantine and testing policy in an effort to ensure continued protection for vulnerable populations from a surge in infections.
* Pfizer expects the latest results from a clinical trial for kids under the age of 5 of the COVID-19 vaccine it developed with BioNTech by April.
* India has not added Merck's COVID-19 pill to its national treatment protocol for the disease due to known safety concerns that have restricted its use elsewhere, a senior health official said on Wednesday.
* Asian shares fell on Thursday, extending a global slump after Federal Reserve meeting minutes pointed to a faster-than-expected rise in U.S. interest rates due to concerns about persistent inflation. [MKTS/GLOB]
* Shopper numbers in Britain deteriorated sharply in December, to 18.6% below 2019's level compared with November's 14.5% decline, industry data showed.
* New car registrations in Britain last year grew slightly from 2020 but were still far below pre-pandemic levels, reflecting a shortage of semiconductors as well as the direct impact of the pandemic.
(Compiled by Shailesh Kuber, Anita Kobylinska, Boleslaw Lasocki and Uttaresh.V; Edited by Arun Koyyur and Shounak Dasgupta)
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