Japan and IOC deny that Olympics will be cancelled

By Jack Tarrant and Sakura Murakami

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan and the IOC stood firm on Friday on their commitment to host the Tokyo Olympics this year and denied a report of a possible cancellation, although the pledge looks unlikely to ease public concern about holding the event during a pandemic.

Though much of Japan is under a state of emergency due to a third wave of COVID-19 infections, Tokyo Olympic organizers have vowed to press ahead with the re-scheduled Games, which are due to open on July 23 after being postponed for a year because of the coronavirus.

A government spokesman said there was “no truth” to a report in Britain’s Times newspaper that the government had privately concluded the Games would have to be cancelled.

The Times, citing an unidentified senior member of Japan’s ruling coalition, said the government’s focus was now on securing the Games for Tokyo in the next available year, 2032.

“We clearly deny the report,” Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Manabu Sakai told a news conference.

Later, Japan Olympic Committee head Yasuhiro Yamashita told Reuters the report was “a fabrication”, and added in an interview: “It’s wrong and it’s ridiculous even having to comment on this.”

The governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, said there had been no talk of cancelling or delaying the Olympics and a protest should be lodged over the Times report.

The Games organizing committee also denied the report, saying in a statement its partners including the government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were “fully focused” on hosting the games as scheduled.

“It is very disappointing to see that the Times is developing such a tabloid-like story with an untrustworthy source,” a source from the organizing committee told Reuters.

“The national government is fully committed to delivering a safe and secure Games,” the source said.

‘UNFOUNDED RUMORS’

The IOC issued a statement echoing that line, adding: “We will be implementing all possible counter-measures against COVID-19 and will continue to work closely … in our preparations for holding a safe and secure Games this summer.”

The Australian and U.S. Olympic Committees said they were preparing for the Games as planned.

“Unfortunately, I need to address unfounded rumors that the Tokyo Olympic Games will be cancelled, rumors that only create more anxiety for athletes,” Matt Carroll, the chief executive of the Australian committee, told reporters in Sydney.

“The Tokyo Games are on. The flame will be lit on July 23, 2021.”

The Australian committee is run by the IOC’s point man for the Tokyo Games, John Coates.

The U.S. and Canadian committees wrote on Twitter they had not received any information suggesting the Games would not happen as planned.

Sebastian Coe, head of World Athletics, also moved to reassure fans and locals that it would go ahead in a secure environment. “There is an absolute, cast-iron determination,” Coe told Reuters, saying that the arrival of vaccines and ability of athletes to train meant the situation was far better than when the Games were postponed last year.

CORONAVIRUS FEARS

Japan has been hit less severely by the pandemic than many other advanced economies but a recent surge in cases has forced it to close its borders to non-resident foreigners and declare a state of emergency in the Tokyo and other cities.

Tokyo reported new daily coronavirus cases of more than 1,000 for nine straight days through Thursday and set a single-day record of more than 2,400 infections earlier this month. The death toll from the respiratory disease stands at nearly 4,900 people in Japan.

There are public fears that an influx of athletes will spread the virus. About 80% of people in Japan do not want the Games to be held this summer, recent polls show.

In an interview ahead of Friday’s report, Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said he was cautiously hopeful that successful COVID-19 vaccine campaigns could help ensure the safe staging of the world’s largest sporting event.

The Olympic Games represents a major milestone for Japan and its premier, Yoshihide Suga, who has said the event would bring “hope and courage” to the world. Suga reiterated on Friday the Games would go ahead as planned.

(Reporting by Takashi Umekawa, Chris Gallagher, Jack Tarrant Mitch Phillips and Nick Mulvenney; Additional reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel and Alison Williams)

39.9 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines distributed, 19.1 million administered: U.S. CDC

(Reuters) – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it had administered 19,107,959 doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the country as of Friday morning and distributed 39,892,400 doses.

The tally of vaccine doses are for both Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, vaccines as of 9:00 a.m. ET on Friday, the agency said.

According to the tally posted on Jan. 21, the agency had administered 17,546,374 doses of the vaccines, and distributed 37,960,000 doses.

The agency said 16,243,093 people had received one or more doses, while 2,756,953 people got the second dose as of Friday.

A total of 2,289,284 vaccine doses have been administered in long-term care facilities, the agency said.

(Reporting by Trisha Roy in Bengaluru)

Texas attorney general files lawsuit to block Biden’s deportation freeze

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Texas attorney general filed a lawsuit on Friday that seeks to block U.S. President Joe Biden’s move to pause certain deportations for 100 days, a controversial opening-move by the Democratic president that has provoked blowback from some Republicans.

In the filing, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the state would face “irreparable harm” if the deportation moratorium was allowed to go into effect.

Biden promised on the campaign trail to enact a 100-day moratorium on deportations if elected, a proposal that contrasted sharply with the immigration crackdown promoted by then-President Donald Trump, a Republican.

After Biden took office on Wednesday, the top official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a memo that ordered a pause on certain deportations to enable the department to better deal with “operational challenges” at the U.S-Mexico border during the pandemic.

In the court filing on Friday, Paxton argued that the deportation moratorium violated the president’s constitutional duty to execute federal laws. Paxton, a Republican, also said the temporary freeze violated an enforcement agreement the state brokered with the outgoing Trump administration earlier this month.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Chris Reese and Aurora Ellis)

Severe allergic reactions to Moderna vaccine appear rare: CDC report

By Vishwadha Chander

(Reuters) – Severe allergic reactions to Moderna Inc’s coronavirus vaccine appear to be quite rare, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Friday, after over 4 million people had received their first dose.

Based on the data, the CDC said anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction, occurred at a rate of 2.5 cases per 1 million shots administered.

The agency cautioned that the risk of anaphylaxis was difficult to compare to non–COVID-19 vaccines because it is still so early in the vaccination program.

As of Jan. 10, there were 10 cases of anaphylaxis reported among 4.04 million people who received their first doses of Moderna’s two-shot vaccine, according to the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The CDC said the characteristics of severe allergic reactions to Moderna’s vaccine were similar to those reported with the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer Inc and partner BioNTech SE.

Earlier this month, the CDC reported severe allergic reactions to the Pfizer/BioNTech shot occurred at a rate of 11.1 per 1 million vaccinations.

For both vaccines, symptoms presented within minutes after vaccination and were more common among women. Many of those who suffered anaphylaxis after receiving either vaccine had a history of allergies or allergic reactions, and several had an anaphylaxis episode in the past, the CDC said.

The agency said locations administering COVID-19 vaccines should screen recipients, have necessary supplies and staff members to manage anaphylaxis, and immediately treat suspected cases with an epinephrine injection, the same drug in EpiPens.

(Reporting by Vishwadha Chander in Bengaluru and Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Editing by Caroline Humer and Bill Berkrot)

Mexico’s president disputes rights concerns over trapped asylum seekers

MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) – President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador brushed away concerns on Friday about the living conditions of thousands of asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico under a U.S. program that President Joe Biden is scrambling to unravel.

Humanitarian organizations have documented cases of attacks, extortion, kidnapping, and sexual violence against those in the program. Most are from Central America and many live in shelters and cramped apartments in dangerous border towns or in a squalid tent city in Mexico’s far northeast.

Lopez Obrador disputed the accounts, saying he had “other data” and that his government would release a report on the migrants next week.

“We have been taking care of the migrants and we have been careful that their human rights are not affected,” Lopez Obrador told a news conference.

“…It’s nothing like it was before, when they were kidnapped and disappeared. We have been attentive and we have protected them.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, under Biden’s new administration, said on Wednesday it would end all new enrollments in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, which since 2019 has forced more than 65,000 asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their U.S. court hearings, sometimes for months or even years.

The announcement did not specify what will happen to the tens of thousands currently waiting in Mexico under the program, saying only that they “should remain where they are, pending further official information from U.S. government officials.”

(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener; editing by John Stonestreet)

Travel group opposes mandatory quarantine sought by Biden for U.S. international passengers

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A group representing the U.S. travel industry on Friday said it opposes making quarantines mandatory for international air passengers returning to the United States.

U.S. Travel said it believes the introduction of new mandatory negative COVID-19 testing requirements for all international air passengers aged two and older eliminates the need for quarantines for returning passengers.

The new international testing requirements start Tuesday.

The group said enforcing a “mandatory quarantine requirement for international travelers could be extremely difficult to enforce”.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a seven-day quarantine for passengers arriving in the United States.

U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday issued an executive order directing agencies to require international air travelers to quarantine upon U.S. arrival, and directed U.S. agencies to implement a federal mask mandate in interstate transportation.

Biden told reporters passengers will need to “quarantine when they arrive in America”.

The White House did not comment Friday on the travel group’s concerns.

Biden’s order directed agencies to make recommendations to “impose additional public health measures for domestic travel.” Officials say Biden could require COVID-19 testing before flying domestically, similar to the incoming international requirements.

U.S. Travel Chief Executive Roger Dow said Friday the group does not think making testing mandatory before domestic travel “feasible or viable” and questions if the United States has the testing capacity.

Biden’s order says “to the extent feasible” air travelers must comply with applicable CDC guidelines concerning international travel “including recommended periods of self-quarantine”.

The Biden administration said this week it would reimpose entry bans on most non-U.S. citizens who have recently been in Brazil, the United Kingdom, Ireland and most of continental Europe after President Donald Trump issued an order on Monday lifting them from the same day the new testing rules take effect.

Biden has yet to issue a new order to reimpose those entry bans.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Jan Harvey)

German scientists make paralyzed mice walk again

By Stephane Nitschke and Zuzanna Szymanska

(Reuters) – German researchers have enabled mice paralyzed after spinal cord injuries to walk again, re-establishing a neural link hitherto considered irreparable in mammals by using a designer protein injected into the brain.

Spinal cord injuries in humans, often caused by sports or traffic accidents, leave them paralyzed because not all of the nerve fibers that carry information between muscles and the brain are able to grow back.

But the researchers from Ruhr University Bochum managed to stimulate the paralyzed mice’s nerve cells to regenerate using a designer protein.

“The special thing about our study is that the protein is not only used to stimulate those nerve cells that produce it themselves, but that it is also carried further (through the brain),” the team’s head Dietmar Fischer told Reuters in an interview.

“In this way, with a relatively small intervention, we stimulate a very large number of nerves to regenerate and that is ultimately the reason why the mice can walk again.”

The paralyzed rodents that received the treatment started walking after two to three weeks, he said.

The treatment involves injecting carriers of genetic information into the brain to produce the protein, called hyper-interleukin-6, according to the university’s website.

The team is investigating if the treatment can be improved.

“We also have to see if our method works on larger mammals. We would think of pigs, dogs or primates, for example,” Fischer said.

“Then, if it works there, we would have to make sure that the therapy is safe for humans too. But that will certainly take many, many years.”

(Reporting by Stephane Nitschke and Zuzanna Szymanska; editing by John Stonestreet)

British PM says new variant may carry higher risk of death

By Michael Holden and Alistair Smout

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday the new English variant of COVID-19 may be associated with a higher level of mortality although he said evidence showed that both vaccines being used in the country are effective against it.

“We’ve been informed today that in addition to spreading more quickly, it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant – the variant that was first discovered in London and the southeast (of England) – may be associated with a higher degree of mortality,” he told a news briefing.

The warning about the higher risk of death from the new variant, which was identified in England late last year, came as a fresh blow after the country had earlier been buoyed by news the number of new COVID-19 infections was estimated to be shrinking by as much as 4% a day.

Johnson said however that all the current evidence showed both vaccines remained effective against old and new variants.

Data published earlier on Friday showed that 5.38 million people had been given their first dose of a vaccine, with 409,855 receiving it in the past 24 hours, a record high so far.

England and Scotland announced new restrictions on Jan. 4 to stem a surge in the disease fueled by the highly transmissible new variant of the coronavirus, which has led to record numbers of daily deaths and infections this month.

The latest estimates from the health ministry suggest that the number of new infections was shrinking by between 1% and 4% a day. Last week, it was thought cases were growing by much as 5%, and the turnaround gave hope that the spread of the virus was being curbed, although the ministry urged caution.

The closely watched reproduction “R” number was estimated to be between 0.8 and 1, down from a range of 1.2 to 1.3 last week, meaning that on average, every 10 people infected will infect between eight and 10 other people.

But the Office for National Statistics estimated that the prevalence overall remained high, with about one in 55 people having the virus.

“Cases remain dangerously high and we must remain vigilant to keep this virus under control,” the health ministry said. “It is essential that everyone continues to stay at home, whether they have had the vaccine or not.”

Britain has recorded more than 3.5 million infections and nearly 96,000 deaths – the world’s fifth-highest toll – while the economy has been hammered. Figures on Friday showed public debt at its highest level as a proportion of GDP since 1962, and retailers had their worst year on record.

(Additional reporting by William James, Alistair Smout, Andy Bruce and Sarah Young; Editing by Alison Williams)

U.S. Senate confirms Biden nominee Austin as defense secretary

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Friday confirmed President Joe Biden’s nominee, retired Army General Lloyd Austin, to serve as Secretary of Defense – the first Black American in the role.

The vote was an overwhelming 93-2 in the 100-member chamber, far more than the simple majority needed.

Lawmakers from both parties said they were pleased that Austin would be installed to lead the Pentagon just two days after Biden was sworn in as president on Wednesday.

Senator Jack Reed, the incoming Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted the wide range of challenges facing the country – including the coronavirus pandemic and competition with China and Russia.

“General Austin is an exceptionally qualified leader with a long and distinguished career in the U.S. military,” Reed said before the vote.

“We’re in the most threatened time that we’re in,” said Senator James Inhofe, the outgoing Republican chairman of the armed services panel, as he also urged support for the nominee.

Members of Congress on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a waiver that allowed Austin to lead the Pentagon even though he had not cleared the required seven-year waiting period since leaving the uniformed services – a law intended to enforce civilian control of the armed forces.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Chizu Nomiyama)

China says 10 workers trapped in gold mine are searching for others

By Emily Chow

QIXIA, China (Reuters) – The 10 known survivors trapped since a deadly Jan. 10 gold mine explosion in northern China have been using laser pointers and loudspeakers to try to find their missing colleagues, state media reported on Friday.

The rescue operation, which has been able to get food and medicines to the miners, was expected to take at least another two weeks, authorities have said.

White bottles of food and water sent down to the trapped workers had a note stuck on them saying, “We are all waiting for you, keep going!”, photos shared by propaganda department officials with Reuters on Friday showed.

The food items sent to the workers include millet porridge, quail eggs, pickles and sausages and medical supplies included disinfectant, masks and cotton socks.

“The physical condition, psychological condition and living environment of 10 miners in the middle section of the mine are good,” the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, reported on Friday.

“The miners continued to search for other trapped persons through laser pointer projection and loudspeaker shouting,” it said.

A total of 22 workers were trapped in the Hushan mine by the Jan 10 blast in Qixia, a major gold-producing region under the administration of Yantai in coastal Shandong province.

One has died and 11 were not in contact with the rescue teams, according to a Xinhua radio report on Thursday.

At least 15 days may be needed to clear the “severe blockages” as rescuers continued to drill shafts to reach the 10 men, officials said on Thursday.

At the site, security was tight on Friday and Reuters journalists were not permitted to get close to the rescue operation.

Workers in orange high visibility clothing could be seen operating heavy machinery. At the entrance to the site, a medical tent had been set up to administer COVID tests for rescue workers.

About 570 people are involved in the rescue, the newspaper said.

China’s mines are among the world’s deadliest. It has recorded 573 mine-related deaths in 2020, according to the National Mine Safety Administration.

(Reporting by Emily Chow in Qixia and Beijing newsroom; Writing by Shivani Singh; Editing by Tony Munroe and Philippa Fletcher)