New coronavirus variant hits US, rest of the world

New coronavirus variant hits US, rest of the world; Biden vows to improve vaccine distribution

Covid hospitalizations are back at an all-time high in the United States at more than 121,000 as of Monday

Medical staff member Mantra Nguyen sets up a ventilator for a patient in the Covid-19 intensive care unit (ICU) at the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, Texas. Credit: AFP

A worrying new variant of Covid-19 was detected for the first time Tuesday in the United States and Latin America as President-elect Joe Biden vowed he will significantly ramp up a fledging vaccination drive.

The new strain, which first emerged in the UK, pushed Britain to a new daily record of coronavirus infections and led South Africa to impose a raft of new measures, amid fears around the world that holiday revelers are aggravating the spike in infections.

The EU health agency warned that the strain carried a high risk for more hospitalizations and deaths -- not because the infections are more severe but because it spreads more easily.

The Rocky Mountain state of Colorado recorded what is believed to be the first case in the United States -- which has suffered the highest death toll of the year-old pandemic that has claimed more than 1.78 million lives globally.

Governor Jared Polis said a man in his 20s in Elbert County near Denver was infected with the variant known as B.1.1.7 and is isolating.

Biden, after receiving a briefing from experts on the pandemic, warned that the dire Covid situation may not ease up until "well into March."

"The next few weeks and months are going to be very tough -- a very tough period for our nation, maybe the toughest during this entire pandemic," Biden said in Delaware.

Covid hospitalizations are back at an all-time high in the United States at more than 121,000 as of Monday.

In Los Angeles, ambulances have waited all day to unload Covid patients, with more than 95 percent of hospitals forced to divert new cases away, and one reportedly treating patients in its gift shop and chapel. Southern California extended a three-week old lockdown indefinitely Tuesday.

Biden called mass Covid vaccination the "greatest operational challenge we've ever faced as a nation" -- and promised the United States would do better after he replaces defeated President Donald Trump on January 20.

"The Trump administration's plan to distribute vaccines is falling far behind," Biden said, promising: "I'm going to move Heaven and Earth to get us going in the right direction."

The Trump administration had predicted that 20 million Americans would be vaccinated by the end of December.

With days left, some 2.1 million have received the first shot of the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Trump defended his record on Twitter, saying that the federal government helped quickly develop vaccines but that it was up to individual states to distribute them.

Biden renewed his promise to administer 100 million vaccine doses in his first 100 days in office and confirmed he would invoke a Korean War-era law to force private industry to step up production.

"We're planning a whole-of-government effort and we're going to work to set up vaccination sites and send mobile units to hard-to-reach communities," Biden said.

With health workers desperately waiting, politicians have been among first to be vaccinated in a stated goal of setting an example, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris taking her first dose Tuesday before cameras in Washington.

As conspiracy theories spread on the internet, a new poll by Ipsos Global Advisor showed that just four in 10 people in France want to get vaccinated, a figure that is only slightly higher in Russia and South Africa.

Britain's government came under pressure to tighten restrictions as it announced a record 24-hour high of 53,135 new infections.

Critical care doctor Samantha Batt-Rawden said medical staff were at "breaking point."

"We are incredibly thin on the ground. NHS (National Health Service) staff have not been prioritized for the vaccine and are going off sick in droves with the new strain," she tweeted.

In South Africa, which has recorded more than 300 cases of the new variant and is the first African nation to hit one million cases, the government banned the sale of alcohol and made masks compulsory in public.

"We have let down our guard, and unfortunately we are now paying the price," said President Cyril Ramaphosa, blaming the new strain and an "extreme lack of vigilance over the holiday period" for the spike.

Chile on Tuesday became the first Latin American country to detect the new strain, in a woman who returned there from Madrid after also traveling to Britain and Dubai.

Health authorities responded by announcing that from December 31, everyone arriving in Chile would have to spend 10 days in quarantine.

The new strain was also detected in the United Arab Emirates and India, which has the second-biggest caseload in the world.

Worrisome trends have been increasing worldwide, with South Korea -- hailed for its early success -- logging its highest daily death toll since the beginning of the pandemic.

And Moscow health officials reported a 27 percent increase in fatalities in the capital from October to November -- a day after Russia admitted its number of Covid-19 deaths were more than three times higher than it had previously reported.

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