• This daily news round-up brings you a selection of the latest news and updates on the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, as well as tips and tools to help you stay informed and protected.
  • Top news stories: British government to remove majority of COVID-19 restrictions; Beijing increases vigilance ahead of winter Olympics; Vaccine group GAVI says more than $5 billion needed for worldwide distribution.

1. How COVID-19 is affecting the globe

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have passed 338 million globally, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of confirmed deaths has now passed 5.56 million. More than 9.79 billion vaccination doses have been administered globally, according to Our World in Data.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the end of COVID-19 measures introduced to curb the rapid spread of the Omicron variant in England as the country shifts towards a policy of living with the virus after a peak in cases.

China's capital Beijing ramped up efforts to curb COVID-19 infections, ordering checks among cold-chain firms and urging residents to cut unnecessary gatherings, as the city reported an uptick in local cases weeks before the Winter Olympics.

Hong Kong will suspend face-to-face teaching in secondary schools from Monday until after the approaching Lunar New Year, authorities said, because of a rising number of coronavirus infections in several schools.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Thursday that restrictions will be tightened across the country if there is a community transmission of Omicron but she ruled out lockdowns. New Zealand's tight controls and geographic advantage have helped it remain free of the Omicron variant in the community, although many cases have now been reported at quarantine facilities at the border.

COVID-19 infections are reaching new peaks in the Americas with 7.2 million new cases and more than 15,000 COVID-related deaths in the last week, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Wednesday.

Portuguese voters with COVID-19 will be allowed to leave home to cast their ballots in a snap election on January 30, the government said on Wednesday. The announcement came a day after Portugal, which has almost 90% of its 10 million population fully inoculated, reported a daily record of 43,729 COVID-19 infections.

Museums and concert halls in the Netherlands opened briefly on Wednesday to protest at their continued closure under a COVID-19 lockdown, offering yoga sessions in front of paintings by Dutch masters and haircuts to the swell of a live symphony orchestra.

Daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases per million people in selected countries
Daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases per million people in selected countries.
Image: Our World in Data

2. Vaccine group Gavi says additional $5.2 billion needed to ensure supply

The chairman of the Gavi vaccine alliance, Jose Manuel Barroso, said on Wednesday that an additional $5.2 billion is needed to continue to deliver vaccines at scale.

Speaking at a news briefing, Barroso said it was critical to continue to keep up the pace of vaccine supply through the COVAX global vaccine-sharing programme, as more than 3 billion people in the world have yet to receive their first dose.

Gavi Chief Executive Seth Berkley said there was a need to raise the funds in the next three months to establish a pandemic pool of a minimum 600 million additional doses, strengthen countries' delivery systems, and finance ancillary costs for syringes and transport.

"If we achieve this goal, we believe that up to 1.25 million deaths can be prevented in the next year alone."

Last week, COVAX reached a milestone of delivering 1 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses. Speaking at the same event, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said scaling up the delivery capacity of COVAX is critical to meeting the U.N. agency's target of vaccinating 70% of the population in poorer nations by mid-2022.

3. US to distribute 400 million free N95 masks

The U.S. government will make 400 million non-surgical "N95" masks available for free to the public starting next week, a White House official said, as the Biden administration tries to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.

Snug-fitting N95 face masks, so-called because they filter at least 95% of particulate matter from the air, will be shipped to pharmacies and community health centers this week, the official said, and will be available for pickup late next week.

The U.S. government is leveraging the "federal retail pharmacy program" it used for vaccines, the White House said, as well as federally funded health clinics that serve minority groups hit hard by COVID infections and deaths.