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The Latest: France confirms case of new virus variant

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

People take pictures of themselves with the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York on Christmas day, Friday, Dec. 25, 2020. The coronavirus upended Christmas traditions, but determination and imagination kept the day special for many. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

PARIS — French health authorities have confirmed the country’s first case of the virus variant that prompted strict new lockdown measures in Britain and global travel restrictions.

A French man living in England arrived in France on Dec. 19 and tested positive for the new variant Friday, the French public health agency said in a statement. He had no symptoms and was isolating in his home in the central city of Tours.

Authorities were tracing the person’s contacts and laboratories were analyzing tests from several other people who may have the new variant, the statement said.

Some other European countries have also reported cases of the new variant, which British authorities said appears more contagious and was spreading fast. The British announcement Dec. 19 prompted countries around the world to suspend flights from the U.K., and France banned all passengers and cargo from Britain for two days, causing massive traffic problems around the British port of Dover.

France reopened the border but now requires anyone entering from Britain to have a test showing they do not have the new variant.

A second partial lockdown sharply curbed France’s infections, but they have been again on the rise over the past two weeks. France has among the world’s highest virus death tolls.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— Curfews, quarantines and even border closings complicated Christmas celebrations, but ingenuity and determination helped many keep the day special

— Canceled and scaled-back holiday magnifies the solitude for the elderly isolated from their families, friends by virus concerns

— President Donald Trump spent Christmas golfing in Florida after refusing to sign bills to fund the government and to provide millions of Americans with COVID relief checks

China's vaccines are poised to fill a gap for poorer countries, but past scandals and secrecy raise doubts about effectiveness

British soldiers worked to clear the backlog of truck drivers stranded after France’s brief border closure over virus variant

— Follow AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

DALLAS — Coronavirus hospitalizations in Texas on Friday approached a peak equaling the summer’s surge even as health officials warned that holiday gatherings and travel are likely to further spread the virus and pressure health care services.

The state health department reported 10,868 patients hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state on Christmas, less than 30 behind the record high set in July. Intensive care units in several parts of Texas were full or nearly full, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Texas on Friday reported 200 more death from COVID-19. There were 3,123 newly confirmed cases of the virus and another 973 probable cases, according to the health department.

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ATHENS — The first vaccines against the coronavirus have arrived in Greece.

The first 9,750 doses arrived overland, crossing from the Bulgarian border in the north Friday evening, with the van carrying them escorted by six police cars, a video taken at the border shows.

Vaccinations will begin at five Athens hospitals Sunday, with health personnel and elderly residents of nursing homes.

Greece’s president, prime minister and a total of 42 government, military and police officials deemed essential to the functioning of the state, as well as opposition leaders, will also be vaccinated in the first days.

Health authorities announced Friday 617 new infections over the past 24 hours, alongside 50 deaths.

The numbers are lower than recent trends, but authorities are still vigilant against a possible spread during the holiday season.

Five subway stations in central Athens were closed Friday afternoon to keep people from congregating in the capital’s festively decorated central squares and avenues. A nightly curfew at 10 p.m. is still in effect across the country.

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ROME — For a fourth straight day, Italy’s daily new caseload of confirmed coronavirus infections has climbed higher.

Adding 19,037 COVID-19 cases on Friday, the nation raised its overall tally of confirmed infections in the pandemic to 2,028,354.

The figures from the Health Ministry on Christmas Day included 459 deaths registered since Thursday. That brings the number of known pandemic dead in Italy to 71,359.

As it has had most recently, the northeast Veneto region reported the highest daily caseload, with just over 5,000 confirmed infections registered on Friday.

That’s nearly double the day’s caseload in neighboring Lombardy, the populous region which has suffered the most deaths and has had the most COVID-19 cases since Italy’s first native case emerged in February.

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TOKYO -- Japan’s health ministry has confirmed the country’s first cases of infection with the new variant of the coronavirus that was identified in Britain.

The five people arrived between Dec. 18 and Dec. 21, before Japan stepped up border control on Friday for entrants from Britain. A man in his 60s developed fatigue, but the other four were without symptoms.

Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said the five were sent to quarantine straight from the airports.

After they tested positive for the virus, further analysis conducted at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases determined they had the British variant that is 70% more transmissible, the ministry said in a statement.

Shigeru Omi, head of a government taskforce, called for tighter border control to prevent new variants.

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MOSCOW — Russian authorities have ordered those arriving from the U.K. to quarantine for two weeks.

Earlier this week, Russia suspended direct flights from the U.K. after a variant of the coronavirus that is 70% more transmissible has spread across London and parts of England.

The order from the Rospotrebnadzor sanitary safety agency posted Friday on the portal of official information obliges all those traveling from the U.K. to remain in isolation for 14 days after their arrival in Russia. The measure is effective starting Saturday.

Dozens of countries have barred flights from the U.K. or announced travel restrictions. The United States will require airline passengers from Britain to get a negative COVID-19 test before their flight starting Monday.

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VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has made a passionate appeal to nations to ensure COVID-19 vaccines for all.

In his Christmas Day message on Friday, he urged that the vulnerable and the needy be first in line. Francis said the laws of the markets and patents can’t come before the “laws of love and health of humanity” and he called on leaders of nations, international organizations and businesses to “promote cooperation, not competition” in the distribution of the vaccines.

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ATLANTA — The United States will require airline passengers from Britain to get a negative COVID-19 test before their flight.

The U.S. is the latest country to announce new travel restrictions because of a new variant of the coronavirus that is spreading in Britain.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says airline passengers from the United Kingdom will have to get negative COVID-19 tests within three days of their trip and provide the results to the airline. The agency says the order will be signed Friday and go into effect on Monday.

The CDC says because of travel restrictions in place since March, air travel to the U.S. from the U.K. has been cut by 90%.

Last weekend, Britain’s prime minister said a new variant of the coronavirus seemed to spread more easily than earlier ones and was moving rapidly through England. Dozens of countries have since barred flights from the U.K.

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BEIJING — Authorities in China’s northeastern port city of Dalian are testing millions of residents after seven new coronavirus cases were reported there in the last 24 hours.

The cluster that has emerged in recent days has grown to 12 cases. In five neighborhood divisions, authorities have shut schools and public spaces and are restricting anyone but essential workers from leaving their residential compounds.

Beijing is also on high alert after two asymptomatic cases were reported Thursday, in addition to two confirmed cases last week.

The city began mass testing in the neighborhood and workplace of one of the asymptomatic cases, a restaurant employee who worked handling cold chain.

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SEOUL, South Korea — Christmas Day has brought South Korea its biggest daily increase in coronavirus infections of the pandemic as officials urged for citizen vigilance to help curb a viral surge that has worsened hospitalization and deaths.

The 1,241 new confirmed cases reported Friday raised the country’s total to 54,770. Officials said 17 more people had died from COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours, bringing the death toll to 773.

The country has been expanding its mass testing program to slow the rate of transmissions and more than 118,000 tests were conducted Thursday alone. Officials are also clamping down on private social gatherings through Jan. 3, shutting down national parks and ski resorts and setting fines for restaurants if they serve groups of five people or more.

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RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has used his Christmas message to cast more doubt on a coronavirus vaccine purchased by one of the country’s states from the Chinese biopharmaceutical firm Sinovac.

In his live broadcast on social media Thursday, Bolsonaro said “the efficacy of that vaccine of Sao Paulo seems to be very low,” though he gave nothing specific.

Sao Paulo health authorities have not presented complete trial results a week after announcing that there were encouraging phase three studies on the shot’s effectiveness.

Brazil so far has no agreements to import vaccine made by American companies Pfizer or Moderna, which have been approved by U.S. and other nations. It has a deal to secure up to 100 million doses of the potential vaccine produced by AstraZeneca.

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NEW YORK — The number of passengers screened for flights in the U.S. topped nearly 1.2 million Wednesday for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic outbreak, but it’s still about 38.5% below the same Wednesday last year, by far the smallest percentage decline since March.

The Transportation Security Administration said Wednesday’s tally of 1.19 million was the most since mid-March.

It’s the third straight daily gain.

On the same weekday a year ago, 1.94 million passengers were screened. However, that was Christmas 2019 when travel was lighter than normal. On several days in early April after the pandemic broadsided the U.S. economy, fewer than 100,000 people were screened to board planes.

The bump comes as the CDC warns that holiday travel may increase one’s chances of getting and spreading the virus. It recommends staying home and postponing travel as the best way to protect oneself from COVID-19.

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JERUSALEM — The Israeli government says it will be imposing its third nationwide lockdown on Sunday to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet approved the movement restrictions for two weeks. It includes the shutdown of most non-essential businesses, limitations on gatherings and movement from people’s homes and reduced public transit. At the same time, classes for high school, kindergartens and some grade school students will continue.

Israel, a country of 9 million people, started rolling out coronavirus vaccinations this week and has already inoculated over 140,000 people, according to the health ministry. Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel aims to increase vaccinations to 100,000 people per day by next week.

Israel has recorded over 385,000 cases of the coronavirus since March, and 3,150 deaths. But the infection rate has shot up in recent weeks after the government started easing restrictions put in place in September.