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More parts of China lock down as virus cases spike ahead of WHO visit

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A resident undergoes a Covid-19 coronavirus test at the basement of a residential compound as part of a mass testing programme following new cases of the virus emerging in Shijiazhuang, in central China’s Hebei province on Jan. 12, 2021.

STR | AFP | Getty Images

BEIJING — Local authorities in regions near Beijing are stepping up restrictions on social activity as new coronavirus cases grow.

Langfang city, located about 1.5-hours south of downtown Beijing, told its nearly 5 million residents on Tuesday to stay home for the next seven days. The city is in Hebei, the same province as Shijiazhuang, a city of 11 million people that locked down late last week after a spike in coronavirus cases.

Shijiazhuang reported 39 new confirmed cases for Monday, while Langfang disclosed one. That brought the total number of current confirmed and asymptomatic cases in Hebei province to more than 500 people.

Separately, two regions of China’s northernmost province of Heilongjiang announced lockdowns on Tuesday. The province reported one new confirmed case and 36 asymptomatic ones for Monday.

Beijing reported one confirmed case for Monday. Since mid-December, the city has reported a handful of cases in close succession, prompting tighter restrictions on some apartment compounds and mass testing on the outskirts of the nation’s capital city.

It was not immediately clear to what extent the local economy would be affected as there was no official order to halt work. Heilongjiang accounted for just over 1% of China’s GDP in 2019 and Hebei about 3.6%. Neither province is as important economically compared with those in the southeastern, coastal parts of China.

Representatives for European and American business associations in China said members were not significantly affected by the latest increase in virus cases. Economic activity generally slows down in late January through February as hundreds of millions of workers return to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year.

However, some provinces have begun to announce bans on large-scale gatherings and events. The central government is encouraging people to stay put during the Lunar New Year holiday that officially falls in mid-February this year.

“The worsening coronavirus situation will impact economic activity, and markets may need to temper their expectations for strong pent-up consumption demand in the coming LNY holidays in mid-February,” Ting Lu, chief China economist at Nomura, said in a note Monday.

“With the worsening virus situation and the coldest winter in decades, growth recovery lost some momentum in recent weeks,” he said. “A full recovery in the services sector could be delayed, as suggested by weaker services PMI indices in December.”

Both official and private surveys for last month showed that the services PMI, or Purchasing Managers’ Index, remained in expansion territory but fell from November.

China’s economy shrank 6.8% in the first quarter of last year as authorities shut down more than half the country in an attempt to control the outbreak.

WHO team to begin investigation

Covid-19 first emerged in late 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Authorities locked down the city by late January 2020, but the disease soon spread to the rest of the world in a global pandemic. The coronavirus has since infected more than 90 million worldwide and killed over 1.9 million people.

On Thursday, a team from the World Health Organization is set to arrive in China to research the origins of the virus with local scientists. The WHO said the study will begin in Wuhan.

A separate WHO team is working with producers of Covid-19 vaccines from Chinese pharmaceutical companies Sinovac and Sinopharm “to assess compliance with international quality manufacturing practices ahead of potential emergency use listing by WHO,” said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Beijing has pushed back against the idea that Covid-19 came from China. After the spread of the virus stalled domestically last March, authorities have blamed subsequent spikes in cases on foreign sources.

For the latest outbreak, Hebei province began to report cases about 10 days ago. On Sunday, an epidemiologist from the provincial disease control center told reporters the cases likely stemmed from foreign sources that were in contact with the province before December 15.


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Saks Fifth CEO says luxury retail is ‘comfort food’ during pandemic

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A pedestrian passes in front of the Saks Fifth Avenue Inc. women’s store at Brookfield Place in New York, U.S.

Allison Joyce | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Saks Fifth Avenue Chief Executive Marc Metrick said luxury retail has been like “comfort food” for some shoppers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“People were buying things in the height of the pandemic that there was no absolute functional end use for, but they love the fashion,” Metrick said Thursday during a virtual presentation at the National Retail Federation’s Big Show event. “I think what we learned is [consumers] view luxury as the comfort food of retail. … It was their way to feel — it was something so much more and so much deeper than a pair of shoes.”

“Why else would you buy 110-millimeter pumps … from a from a luxury brand, when you’re working at home and on Zoom all day?” he said. “You do it because you love fashion, and it’s your Oreo cookie. It’s your — something that’s going to make you feel better.”

For Saks, he added, “that was proof of concept [that] fashion is going to prevail.”

Luxury retailers including the high-end department store chain Neiman Marcus and jeweler Tiffany have reported a similar trend over the past year: Wealthy shoppers looking to splurge even more on themselves during hard times. Many of these consumers have been spending less money on travel and dining out, with so many social activities curtailed during the health crisis, and instead have been ringing up more designer handbags, diamond rings and extravagant home décor.

Metrick said interest in Saks’ personal-shopper service has also risen during the pandemic, in part for safety reasons, but also because people are out looking for things to do.

“When you’re shopping for luxury products, you want the experience,” he said. “You don’t want it to be simply a transaction.”

A store-within-a-store called “Barneys at Saks” debuted on the fifth floor of the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship in New York City earlier this month. The Barneys New York department store chain filed for bankruptcy in 2019, but the brand is living on at Saks, with more of these mini stores slated to open this year.

“Stores are still important,” Metrick said. “For luxury especially, it’s the theater.”


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Russia’s Sputnik vaccine gets its first approval in the EU, UAE

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A medical worker fills a syringe with the Gam-COVID-Vac vaccine (under the brand name of Sputnik V) at in Butovo, south Moscow.

Sergei Savostyanov | TASS | Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Russia’s Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine got a series of boosts on Thursday as Hungary and the United Arab Emirates became the first countries in the European Union and Gulf region, respectively, to register the shot for emergency use. 

Hungary’s decision was confirmed by President Viktor Orban’s spokesperson, who said that if the country agrees on a shipment deal with Moscow, it will become the first European Union country to receive the vaccine. This comes as the country’s cases have fallen from a peak of more than 6,000 per day in early December to below 2,000 per day. 

“This decision is very important as it demonstrates that the vaccine’s safety and efficacy of over 90% are highly regarded by our partners in Hungary,” Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, said in a statement. 

The EU’s medicines regulator has yet to approve the Russian jab, though German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave Sputnik further hope on Thursday, suggesting that Germany’s vaccines regulator could advise Russia on navigating the EU approval process. The RDIF has filed Sputnik for EU registration and expects its review in February.

UAE approval comes amid dramatic surge in infections

The approval from the UAE comes amid a record surge in cases in the small Gulf sheikhdom, which has stood out internationally for welcoming tourists and fully reopening its economy by late summer of last year. 

Confirmed coronavirus cases have more than tripled in a span of roughly three weeks, leading Emirati authorities to suspend nonessential surgeries in hospitals and “entertainment activities” in its bustling hotels and restaurants just days after assuring the country that the virus was under control.

The UAE’s daily case count hit a record high 3,529 on Thursday, far above its neighboring Gulf Arab countries where registered infections hover below 500 per day.

An Emirati man, wearing a protective mask, walks at al-Barsha Health Centre in the Gulf Emirate of Dubai on December 24, 2020.

GIUSEPPE CACACE | AFP via Getty Images

Sputnik V will be the third vaccine to be deployed in the UAE after China’s Sinopharm vaccine and the U.S and German-developed Pfizer-BioNTech jab were made available to the public in December. The country of roughly 10 million is carrying out what its government says is the second-fastest national vaccination campaign in the world after Israel, per capita, and intends to have half the country’s residents inoculated by the end of March.

“The decision comes as part of the UAE’s comprehensive and integrated efforts to ensure increased prevention levels,” the country’s health ministry said of Sputnik’s approval in a statement Thursday. “Study results have demonstrated the effectiveness of the vaccine in triggering a strong antibody response against the virus, its safety for use, and its compliance with international safety and effectiveness standards.”

A lack of late-stage trial data

The approvals came despite no data made public so far on the vaccine’s Phase 3 human trial results. UAE capital Abu Dhabi began Phase 3 tests for Sputnik V earlier this month, but has not released data on them. The RDIF says that 1,000 volunteers in the emirate have received their first dose.

Sputnik V, which its developer, the Gamaleya Research Institute, says is 91% effective after two doses, has been in use across Russia for months. Scientists have expressed concern over what many have described as a rushed rollout of the vaccine, green-lighted for mass use in Russia before Phase 3 trials were completed.

As a first step in the biggest vaccination campaign in Argentina’s history, first line health workers are receiving the Russian Sputnik V vaccine against the coronavirus.

Patricio Murphy | SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images

Analysis of the vaccine’s Phase 1 and 2 trials were published in the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet in September, which said that early results showed no major negative side effects, but that more studies were needed. 

“Phase III clinical trials results are expected to be published shortly,” according to Sputnik V’s official website.  

Prior to Thursday’s announcements, it had been approved for emergency use in 9 countries and territories outside Russia — Algeria, Argentina, Bolivia, Belarus, Serbia, Venezuela, Paraguay, Turkmenistan and the Palestinian territories. 


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Pete Buttigieg testifies at confirmation hearing for Biden’s transportation secretary

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Pete Buttigieg, President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Transportation Department, said he will work to ensure transportation systems are safe during the pandemic.

Buttigieg said keeping sectors from “aviation to public transit, to our railways, roads, ports, waterways, and pipelines” safe, according to his prepared remarks ahead of his confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

The 39-year-old former presidential candidate and former mayor of South Bend, Ind. will face a country roiled by Covid-19, particularly airlines struggling to stem billions in losses as the virus keeps many customers off of airplanes.

Biden is scheduled to sign an executive order on Thursday that would require masks on interstate transportation, including airplanes, a step airline labor unions have urged since early in the pandemic but one the Trump administration declined to take.


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