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COVID-19: Italy closes schools in ‘red zone’ coronavirus areas amid concerning growth in new variants | World News

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Italy’s government has ordered the closure of all schools in regions hardest hit by the coronavirus amid rising fears over new variants of the disease.

Italy was one of the first countries in Europe to see COVID-19 on a large scale in February 2020, and it has registered nearly three million confirmed cases since then.

It is now seeing around 15,000 new cases per day and the trend is rising, putting the health system under strain.

In recent weeks, the incidence of new cases among young people has overtaken that seen among the older population – a reversal of what was seen earlier in the pandemic.

The UK variant accounted for 54% of confirmed cases as at 18 February, according to Silvio Brusaferro, president of the government’s Superior Institute of Health.

But he added: “If measured today surely the percentage would be higher.”

The variant first reported in Brazil has been found in 4.3% of cases, particularly in central Italy, including Rome, while the variant first found in South Africa accounts for 0.4% of cases and is mainly confined to the Italian Alpine area near the Austrian border, he said.

Italy’s new prime minister, Mario Draghi, has said tougher measures will come into effect from Saturday and last until 6 April, just after Easter.

Under these rules, all schools – including nurseries – in “red zone” regions must be closed, although some exceptions will be made for students with special needs.

Distance learning was already mandatory for high school students in these areas but younger pupils will now be included.

Italy’s 20 regions have been divided into a tiered system – white, yellow, orange and red, with red being under the toughest restrictions.

Health Minister Roberto Speranza said: “The English variant which is prevalent is particularly able to penetrate among the youngest age groups.”

He also said there were “rather robust signs of an uptick in the curve of contagion and terrible variants”, adding that the stricter rules were being brought in to “govern this curve of contagion”.

Meanwhile, some cultural venues in yellow zone regions will be allowed to reopen from 27 March.

Venues must limit capacity to 25% and museums, which were already allowed to open on weekdays, will be permitted to open on weekends.

Pools and gyms remain closed, travel between regions is banned, and a curfew between 10pm and 5am remains.

At least 98,000 people have died with the virus in Italy, the highest number in continental Europe.

Some 3.7 million doses of coronavirus vaccine have been administered since the end of December.

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Myanmar junta releases over 23,000 prisoners but fate of detained protesters unknown | World News

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Myanmar’s junta has claimed to have pardoned and released more than 23,000 prisoners – but it is not known if the figure includes pro-democracy activists detained in the wake of February’s coup.

The release was announced to mark the new year holiday.

State broadcaster MRTV said Myanmar‘s military leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing pardoned the 23,047 prisoners, including 137 foreigners who will be deported.

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He also reduced sentences for others.

Early prisoner releases are customary during major holidays, but this is the second time the ruling junta has done so since it ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, triggering daily protests, arrests and deaths by security forces.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which monitors casualties and arrests, government forces have killed at least 726 protesters and bystanders since the takeover.

The group says 2,728 people, including Ms Suu Kyi, are in detention.

Following the release of more than 23,000 convicts to mark Union Day on 12 February, there were reports on social media that some were recruited by the authorities to carry out violence at night in residential areas to spread panic.

Heavy clashes erupted during demonstrations in Yangon on Sunday 28 March
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Heavy clashes erupted during demonstrations in Yangon on Sunday 28 March

Some areas responded by setting up their own neighbourhood watch groups.

The military said it staged the coup because a November election won by Ms Suu Kyi’s party was rigged – an assertion dismissed by the election commission.

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COVID-19: Pandemic has now killed three million across the world – as countries see surge in cases | World News

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The global death toll from coronavirus has topped three million people amid repeated setbacks in the worldwide vaccination campaign and a deepening crisis in places such as Brazil, India and France.

The number of lives lost, as compiled by Johns Hopkins University in the US, is about equal to the population of Kyiv, Ukraine; Caracas, Venezuela; or metropolitan Lisbon, Portugal.

It is bigger than Chicago (2.7 million) and equivalent to Philadelphia and Dallas combined.

However, the true number is believed to be significantly higher because of possible government concealment and the many cases overlooked in the early stages of the outbreak that began in Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019.

Worldwide, COVID-19 deaths are on the rise again, running at around 12,000 per day on average, and new cases are climbing too, eclipsing 700,000 a day.

“This is not the situation we want to be in 16 months into a pandemic, where we have proven control measures,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, one of the World Health Organisation’s leaders on COVID-19.

In Brazil, where deaths are running at about 3,000 per day, accounting for one-quarter of the lives lost worldwide in recent weeks, the crisis has been likened to a “raging inferno” by one WHO official.

A more contagious variant of the virus has been rampaging across the country.

Meanwhile, problems that India had overcome last year are coming back to haunt health officials.

Recent religious event in India could be behind the surge in cases, experts suggest
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Recent religious event in India could be behind the surge in cases, experts suggest

Only 178 ventilators were free on Wednesday afternoon in New Delhi, a city of 29 million, where 13,000 new infections were reported the previous day.

The challenges facing India reverberate beyond its borders since the country is the biggest supplier of shots to Covax, the UN-sponsored program to distribute vaccines to poorer parts of the world.

Last month, India said it would suspend vaccine exports until the virus’s spread inside the country slows.

The WHO recently described the supply situation as precarious.

Up to 60 countries might not receive any more jabs until June, by one estimate.

To date, Covax has delivered about 40 million doses to more than 100 countries, enough to cover barely 0.25% of the world’s population.

Globally, about 87% of the 700 million doses dispensed have been given out in rich countries.

While one in four people in wealthy nations have received a vaccine, in poor countries the figure is one in more than 500.

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Elon Musk’s SpaceX wins $2.9bn NASA contract to send humans to the moon | Science & Tech News

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Elon Musk’s private space company SpaceX has won a $2.9bn (£2.1bn) NASA contract to build a spacecraft to put humans on the moon.

The tech billionaire’s firm was chosen ahead of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and defence contractor Dynetics Inc.

Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator, said at a video conference: “We should accomplish the next landing as soon as possible. This is an incredible time to be involved in human exploration, for all humanity.”

SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk
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SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk wants to take humans to Mars

SpaceX will need to complete a test flight “to fully check out all systems with a landing on the lunar surface prior to our formal demonstration mission”, NASA official Lisa Watson-Morgan told reporters.

Mr Musk is one of the world’s richest people thanks to his 22% stake in electric car maker Tesla, now the world’s most valuable vehicle manufacturer.

His publicly stated aim is to put humans on Mars – but so far, SpaceX has mainly been used to launch satellites for his Starlink internet venture, and other satellites and space cargo.

The SpaceX programme has suffered considerable teething problems, with another failed landing for its prototype Starship spacecraft last month.

The previous three exploded at touchdown or shortly afterwards.

Those setbacks do not appear to have affected investors’ confidence in his schemes, however, as SpaceX said on Wednesday it had raised about $1.16bn (£838m) in equity financing.

SpaceX lost another Starship, here seen launching in thick fog, in a botched landing on Tuesday
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SpaceX lost another Starship, here seen launching in thick fog, in a botched landing

NASA’s plan is get back to the moon and using that as a platform to send astronauts to Mars and it is looking to team up with private companies that share its vision for space exploration.

In December, NASA announced 18 astronauts who could be involved in plans to get back to the moon by 2024.

Jeff Bezos. Pic: AP
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NASA’s decision is a setback for Jeff Bezos. Pic: AP

It’s a setback for Mr Bezos, a lifelong space enthusiast and one of the world’s richest people, who is more focused on his space venture after deciding to step down as Amazon CEO.

The NASA deal was seen as a way for Blue Origin to establish itself as a desired partner for NASA, and also putting the venture on the road to turning a profit.

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