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Ghana president warns of health system overload as COVID cases soar
18 January 2021, 4:43 AM

Ghana’s COVID-19 infection rates are skyrocketing and include new strains of the virus not before seen in the country, filling treatment centres and threatening to overwhelm the health system, President Nana Akufo-Addo said on Sunday.

Since January 5, the number of active cases has risen to 1,924 from about 900, Akufo-Addo said in a speech. There are now 120 severe cases, up from 18 a week ago.

Ghana is not yet close to a peak seen during the first wave of infections in the middle of last year, but could quickly reach that level if cases keep rising at the current rate.

If they do, the president said he would impose another partial lockdown, despite worries about what that would do to one of West Africa’s largest economies.

“Our COVID-19 treatment centres have gone from having zero patients to now being full because of the upsurge in infections,” the president said. “At this current rate … our healthcare infrastructure will be overwhelmed.”

Across Africa, a second coronavirus wave is infecting twice as many people per day than at the height of last year’s first wave and has yet to peak, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

The rise has raised concern across the continent where, unlike in Europe and the United States, cash-strapped governments have been unable to secure supply deals with vaccine manufacturers, putting the onus for now on containment.

Akufo-Addo said details about access to vaccines and a rollout plan would be announced “very soon”.

He said that some people arriving from abroad had tested positive for “new variants” of the virus, without giving details.

Last week, Gambia recorded its first two cases of the highly infectious coronavirus variant first found in Britain, in what appears to be the first confirmation of its presence in Africa.

“Work is ongoing to determine the presence and extent of spread of the new variants in the general population,” Akufo-Addo said.

Brazil clears emergency use of Sinovac, AstraZeneca vaccines, shots begin
18 January 2021, 3:39 AM

Brazilian health regulator Anvisa on Sunday approved emergency use of COVID-19 vaccines from China’s Sinovac Biotech and Britain’s AstraZeneca, kicking off immunisations as the pandemic enters a deadly second wave.

Minutes after Anvisa’s board voted unanimously to approve both vaccines, Monica Calazans, a 54-year-old Black nurse in Sao Paulo, became the first person to be inoculated in Brazil, receiving the Chinese vaccine known as CoronaVac.

President Jair Bolsonaro, a coronavirus skeptic who has refused to take a vaccine himself, is under growing pressure to start inoculations in Brazil, which has lost more than 200,000 to COVID-19 – the worst death toll outside the United States.

However, delays with vaccine shipments and testing results have held up vaccinations in the country, once a global leader in mass immunisations and now a regional laggard after peers such as Chile and Mexico started giving shots last month.

Bolsonaro’s government was planning to kick off a national immunisation program this week but is still waiting on shipments of the AstraZeneca vaccine at the center of its plans. That has added to public frustration and offered a political rival the chance to upstage the right-wing president.

Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria, who oversees the Butantan biomedical center that partnered with Sinovac in Brazil, said widespread vaccinations could start immediately.

“I have determined that as soon as Anvisa approves the emergency use of the Butantan vaccine, the Butantan Institute will immediately deliver the vaccines to the Health Ministry to be distributed to SP (Sao Paulo), DF (Federal District) and all Brazilian states,” Doria tweeted just before the deciding vote was cast by Anvisa’s board.

Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello told a news conference that the rush to start vaccinating immediately was an illegal “marketing ploy,” and the government would start distributing the vaccines to states on Monday morning. Brazil could eventually vaccinate 1 million people per day, he said.

Adding to urgency for vaccinations, a second wave of the outbreak in Brazil is snowballing as the country confronts a new, potentially more contagious variant of the coronavirus that originated in Amazonas and prompted Britain and Italy to bar entry to Brazilians.

Butantan, which is set up to fill and finish CoronaVac doses on its production line, plans to supply 46 million doses of the two-dose shot by April, the institute said in a statement.

The federally funded Fiocruz institute is still waiting for a delayed shipment of the active ingredient in the AstraZeneca vaccine for finishing on a Rio de Janeiro assembly line.

The Health Ministry has scrambled to line up 2 million ready doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from India, but officials there have suggested it may take weeks to approve exports. Pazuello said on Sunday he expected the doses from India this week.

Liam Neeson’s ‘The Marksman’ ends ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ reign
18 January 2021, 2:19 AM

If time is a flat circle, then it’s only fitting that a second Liam Neeson movie is ruling over the US box office during the pandemic. Months after his action thriller “Honest Thief” led domestic charts, another Neeson (you guessed it!) action thriller “The Marksman” has debut at No. 1 with $3.2 million in ticket sales.

Robert Lorenz directed “The Marksman,” about a rancher and retired Marine living in Arizona who helps a young boy escape a Mexican drug cartel. The film, which premiered in 1,975 locations, should rake in $3.7 million through the Martin Luther King holiday on Monday. Open Road, the distributor behind “The Marksman,” also backed “Honest Thief.” That film bowed to $3.7 million last October and ended its theatrical run with $14 million in the US and $28 million globally.

“The Marksman” joins the company of “Honest Thief” and Robert De Niro’s “The War With Grandpa” as some of the lowest-grossing box office toppers in modern history, highlighting the bleak reality that movie theaters are facing amid the country’s latest COVID-19 surge. Overall, around 65% of US theaters are closed due to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, “Wonder Woman 1984” slid to second place after besting the (albeit muted) competition for three straights weekends. Warner Bros. did not provide a three-day total, but the studio projects the Gal Gadot-led superhero sequel will generate $2.6 million through the extended holiday weekend. However, “Wonder Woman 1984” could drop to third place behind “The Croods: A New Age” when Martin Luther King day sales are finalized on Monday.

“Wonder Woman 1984,” a DC Comics adaptation that cost $200 million to produce, released simultaneously on the fledgling streaming service HBO Max. It will be taken off the platform next Sunday, and the film will only be available to watch in theaters until it reaches its traditional home entertainment window. It’s expected to return to the streaming platform a few months later. Internationally, where HBO Max has yet to launch, the fantastical follow-up brought in $5.2 million, boosting foreign revenues to $105.9 million for a worldwide total of $141.7 million.

For now, Universal and DreamWorks’ sequel to “The Croods” placed third, amassing $2.04 million this weekend and looking to cross the long weekend with $2.9 million. The animated family film actually improved upon last week’s grosses by 13%, which is impressive considering it’s currently available to watch on home entertainment. Last year, Universal forged an agreement with major theater chains such as AMC and Cinemark to allow the studio to put new releases on demand after 17 days in theaters. In return, select exhibitors are getting an undisclosed cut of digital profits. After two months in theaters, “The Croods: A New Age” has made $40 million at the domestic box office. Overseas, the movie added another $2.2 million from 17 countries for an international total of $94.7 million and a global tally of $134.8 million.

Another Universal title, “News of the World” with Tom Hanks, landed in fourth place with three-day total of $1.05 million and an expected four-day tally of $1.27 million. The Western drama, which is also available to watch on-demand, has collected $8.72 million on the big screen. Rounding out the top five is Sony’s thriller “Monster Hunter.” The video game adaptation with Milla Jovovich generated $920,000 over the weekend and should reach $1.09 million through MLK day. By Monday, it will have made $9.2 million to date.

Though “Promising Young Woman” fell to seventh place on box office charts, the film all but dominated social media chatter as the acclaimed revenge thriller hit premium-on-demand platforms this weekend. (Focus Features, the company distributing the movie, falls under its parent company Universal’s early VOD agreement.) It played in more than 1,000 theaters and collected $430,000 over the weekend, most of which came from drive-in locations. Directed by Emerald Fennell and starring Carey Mulligan, “Promising Young Woman” has grossed $3.4 million in theaters so far. However, the studio has not reported how many watched online.

At the specialty box office, IFC Films opened “MLK/ FBI”, a documentary directed by Sam Pollard on demand and in over 120 theaters nationwide. The film generated $27,500 over the three-day weekend and expects to make $33,250 through Monday. Though IFC didn’t provide tangible rental stats, the company said the documentary ranked within the top 10 on Apple Movies’ independent charts and on the top 5 for documentaries.

“We are so thrilled that the best reviewed and most important documentary of the year is connecting so strongly with audiences on all platforms,” said IFC Films president Arianna Bocco.

Overseas, Disney and Pixar’s “Soul” continued to chug along at the international box office, particularly in China where it now stands as the third highest-grossing Pixar movie of all time with $43.1 million. The critically loved animated family film isn’t playing in US theaters. Instead, it premiered on the company’s streaming service Disney Plus on Christmas Day. In total, “Soul” has made $57.4 million from 11 countries.

Libya talks make progress towards new temporary government, U.N. says
18 January 2021, 1:47 AM

A Libyan political dialogue arranged by the United Nations has made progress towards agreeing a new transitional government to oversee the run-up to elections in December, the U.N. said on Saturday.

Participants at talks in Geneva agreed on a mechanism for choosing the new government, whose formation has been the subject of wrangling among the main factions in a country that is a major oil producer.

Acting U.N. Libya envoy Stephanie Williams said the agreement represented the “best possible compromise” on the issue and could lead to the selection of a transitional government “in several weeks”.

However, she also warned that there would still be “people seeking to obstruct” peacemaking efforts.

The talks are part of a wider peace process, after years of chaos and warfare, which also involves a military ceasefire and an economic track.

Libya has been split since 2014 between rival factions in Tripoli, in the west, and Benghazi in the east.

The internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli is backed by Turkey, while Khalifa Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) is supported by the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Egypt.

However, both sides themselves represent sometimes unstable coalitions of different political, regional and armed factions.

The latest push towards peace began after the GNA turned back a 14-month LNA assault on Tripoli in June. A ceasefire was agreed in Geneva in October.

The transitional government will be responsible for preparing for the elections, combating corruption and restoring public services across Libya, Williams said.

However, November’s Tunis meeting stalled when the delegates started discussing the make-up of the new government. Saturday’s agreement was made by a smaller committee drawn from the participants.

All 75 members of the dialogue will vote next week on the mechanism the Geneva committee agreed on Saturday.

Trump slams China’s Huawei, halting shipments from Intel, others – sources
18 January 2021, 1:31 AM

The Trump administration notified several Huawei suppliers, including chipmaker Intel, that it is revoking certain licenses to sell to the Chinese company and intends to reject dozens of other applications to supply the telecommunications firm, people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

The action against Huawei Technologies – likely the last against the company under Republican President Donald Trump’s administration – is the latest in a long-running effort to weaken the world’s largest telecommunications equipment maker, which it says is a threat to US national security and foreign policy interests.

The notices came amid a flurry of US actions against China in the final days of the Trump administration. Democrat Joe Biden will take the oath of office as president on Wednesday.

An Intel Corp spokesman had no immediate comment, and a Commerce Department spokesman did not immediately return requests for comment.

In an email seen by Reuters documenting the actions, the Semiconductor Industry Association said on Friday the Commerce Department had issued “intents to deny a significant number of license requests for exports to Huawei and a revocation of at least one previously issued license.” Sources familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there was more than one revocation.

The email said the actions spanned a “broad range” of products in the semiconductor industry and asked companies whether they had received notices.

The email noted that companies had been waiting “many months” for licensing decisions and with less than a week left in the administration, dealing with it was a challenge.

A spokesman for the semiconductor group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The United States put Huawei on a Commerce Department “entity list” in May 2019, citing national security concerns, restricting suppliers from selling U.S. goods and technology to the company.

But some sales were allowed and others were denied while the United States ratcheted up the restrictions against the company, including expanding U.S. authority to require licenses for sales of semiconductors made abroad with American technology.

Before the latest action, some 150 licenses were pending for $120 billion worth of goods and technology, a person familiar with the matter said, which had been held up because various US agencies could not agree on whether they should be granted.

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