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Bitcoin tops $10,200 as cryptocurrencies extend rally

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South Korea appeared to soften its attitude toward cryptocurrencies this week, with one report suggesting that the government is looking at the possibility of a cryptocurrency exchange licensing system. The licensing system could be similar to that of New York’s “BitLicense” system, which provides firms handling virtual currencies a license to operate, according to the report.

South Korea is one of the biggest cryptocurrency markets in the world. Its government spooked investors last month after one minister said it was preparing a bill to ban trading via cryptocurrency exchanges.

A South Korean minister said Wednesday that that its “basic rule” was to prevent illegal activities associated with cryptocurrency trading, adding that a ban was just one of many options the government had been considering.

“FOMO (fear of missing out) is back in the markets,” Mati Greenspan, senior market analyst at eToro, told CNBC in a phone interview. “Crypto investors have been sitting on the sidelines waiting for a rally. Yesterday it was litecoin which had a clean break out from its resistance levels and investors jumped on and are still riding it today.”

Greenspan added: “There’s been a lot of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) over the past few weeks. The FUD is fading now.”

— CNBC’s Evelyn Cheng contributed to this report.

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England’s third lockdown sees ‘no evidence of decline’ in cases

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Medics take a patient from an ambulance into the Royal London hospital in London on January 19, 2021.

TOLGA AKMEN | AFP | Getty Images

LONDON — A third national lockdown in England appears to have had little impact on the rising rate of coronavirus infections, according to the findings of a major study, with “no evidence of decline” in the prevalence of the virus during the first 10 days of tougher restrictions.

The closely watched REACT-1 study, led by Imperial College London, warned that health services would remain under “extreme pressure” and the cumulative number of deaths would increase rapidly unless the prevalence of the virus in the community was reduced substantially.

The findings of the preprint report, published Thursday by Imperial College London and Ipsos MORI, come shortly after the U.K. recorded another all-time high of coronavirus deaths.

Government figures released on Wednesday showed an additional 1,820 people had died within 28 days of a positive Covid test. To date, the U.K. has recorded 3.5 million coronavirus cases, with 93,290 deaths.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a media briefing on coronavirus (COVID-19) at Downing Street on January 15, 2021 in London, England.

Dominic Lipinski | Getty Images

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the latest figures were “appalling” and warned, “There are still tough weeks to come.”

Johnson imposed lockdown measures in England on Jan. 5, instructing people to “stay at home” as most schools, bars and restaurants were ordered to close. It is expected the strict public health measures will remain in place until at least mid-February.

What were the main findings?

The REACT-1 study tests nose and throat swabs from between 120,000 and 180,000 people in the community in England at approximately monthly intervals. The latest results mostly covered a period from Jan. 6 to Jan. 15.

The study compared the results with swabs collected between Nov. 13 and Nov. 24 and those taken between Nov. 25 and Dec. 3.

Researchers found 1,962 positives from 142,909 swabs taken over the January period. It means 1.58% of people tested had Covid on a weighted average.

This represents a more than 50% increase in prevalence rates since the study’s mid-December results and is the highest recorded by REACT-1 since it started in May 2020.

Prevalence from Jan. 6 to Jan. 15 was highest in London, the study said, with 1 in 36 people infected, more than double the rate of the previous REACT-1 results.

A man wearing a mask as a preventive measure against the spread of Covid-19 walks in London.

May James | SOPA Images | LightRocket via Getty Images

Infections had also more than doubled in the southeast of England, east of England and West Midlands when compared with the findings published in early December.

“Our data are showing worrying suggestions of a recent uptick in infections which we will continue to monitor closely,” professor Paul Elliott, director of the program at Imperial, said in a statement.

“We all have a part to play in preventing this situation from worsening and must do our best to stay at home wherever possible,” he added.

The U.K.’s Department of Health and Social Care said the full impact of lockdown measures would not yet be reflected in the prevalence figures reported in the REACT-1 study.

“These findings show why we must not let down our guard over the weeks to come,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said.

“It is absolutely paramount that everyone plays their part to bring down infections. This means staying at home and only going out where absolutely necessary, reducing contact with others and maintaining social distancing,” Hancock said.

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Here are the 10 executive orders Biden’s signing to combat the Covid pandemic

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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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