December 21 coronavirus news

By Julia Hollingsworth, Steve George, Meg Wagner and Melissa Mahtani, CNN

Updated 12:00 a.m. ET, December 22, 2020
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6:27 a.m. ET, December 21, 2020

EU drugs regulator to deliver its verdict on Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine this afternoon

From CNN's Kara Fox

A phial of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine is seen at Northern General Hospital in Sheffield, England, on December 8.
A phial of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine is seen at Northern General Hospital in Sheffield, England, on December 8. Andy Stenning/Pool/Getty Images

The European Union drugs regulator is meeting Monday to discuss authorization of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.

If the European Medicines Agency (EMA) grants the vaccine a "conditional marketing authorization," it will be the first coronavirus vaccine approved for use in the EU. But before member states can begin rolling out the vaccine, the European Commission must give its final approval, which is expected on December 23.

The EMA is planning to hold a virtual press briefing at 9am ET on the outcome of the meeting of its human medicines committee.

Last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it was “Europe’s moment” and that vaccinations would start across the bloc on December 27.

The EU has purchased over 2 billion doses of potential vaccines to ensure equitable access across the bloc since the summer. That agreement includes the purchase of 300 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which is enough to vaccinate 150 million of the EU’s 448 million citizens.

On Saturday, Switzerland, which is not in the EU, authorized the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The United Kingdom and the United States granted emergency use authorization of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine earlier this month, with the first leg of their rollout now underway.

The EU vaccine agreement also includes the purchase of up to 160 million doses -- enough for 80 million people -- from US biotech company Moderna, who could receive EMA authorization as early as January 6.

5:38 a.m. ET, December 21, 2020

Sections of English motorway closed by police to “avoid gridlock”

From CNN's Eleanor Pickston and Damien Ward in London

Lorries are parked on the M20 near Folkestone in Kent, England, as part of Operation Stack on December 21.
Lorries are parked on the M20 near Folkestone in Kent, England, as part of Operation Stack on December 21. Steve Parsons/PA/AP

Police in Kent are closing sections of England’s M20 motorway to “avoid gridlock across Kent” after the closure of the Channel Tunnel and Port of Dover.

Kent is the English county closest to France.

Operation Stack is being implemented on the coastbound motorway, the parts of the motorway where lorries usually queue before travelling to the continent, the Kent police said in a statement on Monday morning. 

The move closes these specific sections of the road to regular traffic, instead using them to house freight transport stranded at the crossing. Freight will be separated into two queues on either side of the coastbound carriageway, 1 for tunnel traffic and 1 for port traffic. The middle lanes are kept clear for emergency vehicles, the statement continued.  

The closure is an “emergency measure,” implemented by the Kent police and in consultation with other agencies.

France announced on Sunday that it would not be accepting any passengers arriving from the UK for at least the next 48 hours after the UK announced that it had detected a new variant of coronavirus.

Manston Airport in Kent is also being readied to take up to 4,000 lorries to ease disruption in the surrounding areas, England’s Department for Transport said.

5:15 a.m. ET, December 21, 2020

UK government tries to allay fears on goods shortages after France bans travel from the UK

From Eleanor Pickston in London

Police and port staff turn away vehicles from the Port of Dover in Kent on December 21. The border was closed after the French government's announcement that it will not accept any passengers arriving from the UK for the next 48 hours amid fears over the new mutant coronavirus strain.
Police and port staff turn away vehicles from the Port of Dover in Kent on December 21. The border was closed after the French government's announcement that it will not accept any passengers arriving from the UK for the next 48 hours amid fears over the new mutant coronavirus strain. Steve Parsons/PA Images/Getty Images

United Kingdom Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has tried to calm fears that new transport restrictions could lead to goods shortages.

After the UK announced that it had detected a new variant of the coronavirus, French Prime Minister Jean Castex announced a 48-hour ban on the movement of people from the UK to France, starting Sunday night.

Both the Port of Dover -- a key port between the UK and France -- and Eurotunnel, an underwater tunnel across the English Channel, have closed.

But on Sky News on Monday, Shapps played down the impact.

The port makes up around 20% of goods going in and out of the country, and on a regular Monday, around 6,000 lorries would arrive in Kent, he said. While those won't be able to continue, other crossings are open, he said.

According to Shapps, most good arrive into the UK in unaccompanied containers.

Shapps said that authorities were working to provide welfare for drivers, but added that it was important for the links not to be closed for too long.

“We obviously don't want these links to be closed for too long but it's not unusual for them to be closed and disrupted. There have been periods of some weeks with strikes in the past," Shapps said.
I'm in touch with my opposite number in France and we'll make sure we're doing everything we can to get that restarted, in fact they've said they want to restart the hauliers as quickly as possible."
5:13 a.m. ET, December 21, 2020

The US reported at least 189,000 new coronavirus cases on Sunday

The US has reported at least 17,844,690 coronavirus cases, including at least 317,668 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tally.

Johns Hopkins University reported 189,099 new cases and 1,509 additional deaths Sunday.

At least 2,838,225 vaccine doses have been distributed and at least 556,208 doses of the vaccine have been administered, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Vaccine website.

The totals include cases from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and other US territories, as well as repatriated cases. 

Friday saw the highest number of daily cases reported since the pandemic began.

For the latest Johns Hopkins University US numbers, check this map. CNN’s map, using JHU data, continues to refresh every 15 mins.

3:44 a.m. ET, December 21, 2020

California Governor quarantining after staff member tests positive for Covid-19

From CNN's Hollie Silverman

Governor Gavin Newsom listens to a reporter's question during a news conference in Rancho Cordova, California on June 26.
Governor Gavin Newsom listens to a reporter's question during a news conference in Rancho Cordova, California on June 26. Rich Pedroncelli/Pool/AP

California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) began a 10-day quarantine Sunday after a member of his staff tested positive for Covid-19, a statement from a spokesperson in the governor's office said.

The staff member who tested positive was in contact with Newsom and other staff members, according to the statement.

Newsom and other staff members tested negative for the virus Sunday, the statement said.

The governor and staff will be tested again over the next few days per state guidelines, according to the statement.

3:21 a.m. ET, December 21, 2020

Seoul imposes a ban on public gatherings of more than five people

From CNN’s Jake Kwon in Seoul

 A general view shows the Seoul city skyline and landmark Namsan tower early on December 16.
 A general view shows the Seoul city skyline and landmark Namsan tower early on December 16. Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Seoul City's Acting Mayor has imposed a ban on public gatherings of five or more people from December 23. 

The restriction starts at midnight on December 23 and will continue until midnight on January 3, Seo Jeong-hyup told reporters on Monday.

Weddings and funerals are exempt from the ban and can go ahead with less than 50 people in attendance. 

Seoul and surrounding areas of Incheon and Gyeonggi will be impacted by the ban. 

Seoul has already instructed bars and restaurants to close at 9 p.m. on Friday in a bid to curb the spread of infections.

3:10 a.m. ET, December 21, 2020

Congress' pandemic relief deal buys time but seeds bitter battles ahead

Analysis by CNN's Stephen Collinson

A "closed" sign on the door of a business in San Francisco, California on December 7.
A "closed" sign on the door of a business in San Francisco, California on December 7. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The belated $900 billion pandemic relief deal that Congress announced Sunday offers some rare good news during the holiday season of a brutal year and a measure of short-term help to laid-off workers and shuttered businesses hammered by twin health and economic crises.

The most optimistic interpretation of the agreement is that despite a tortured process, a deeply divided Capitol Hill finally navigated a way to consensus, pushed by a core of more moderate bipartisan senators who catalyzed compromise in a time-honored fashion.

Steps to extend unemployment benefits, make $600 stimulus payments to some adults, raise food stamps and send money to food pantries, speed vaccine deployments and keep businesses like restaurants afloat will make a tangible difference to American lives. But it is not as if Congress had a choice, and its delay significantly worsened the pain of many Americans.

The deprivation caused by the latest Covid-19 surge came at a moment when some jobless benefits had already expired, and many citizens were facing eviction or are going hungry. New restrictions caused by the out-of-control pandemic are stifling businesses and threaten to reverse a halting recovery.

And any ideas that Sunday's breakthrough is a model for a less dysfunctional Washington during a new presidency next year are undercut by the way the bitter process of the last few weeks revealed vast ideological chasms, suggesting the disconnect in a fractured political system is becoming ever more extreme. This was borne out by the fact that Congress keeps having to pass short-term spending bills to avert a government shutdown.

Read more here.

3:10 a.m. ET, December 21, 2020

Here's what's in the second stimulus package

From CNN's Katie Lobosco and Tami Luhby

The US Capitol building is seen down Pennsylvania Avenue on December 20 in Washington, DC.
The US Capitol building is seen down Pennsylvania Avenue on December 20 in Washington, DC. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

US Leaders in the House and Senate reached an agreement late Sunday on a$900 billion pandemic relief bill that includes enhanced unemployment benefits and direct cash payments.

There were several changes made from a proposal put forward nearly two weeks ago by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. Direct stimulus checks were brought in at the last minute. Direct aid to states and liability protections for companies were left out. 

If the new bill passes, it will be the second-largest federal stimulus package after the $2 trillion CARES Act that Congress approved in March.

Lawmakers in both chambers are expected to vote Monday and send the bill to President Donald Trump's desk for his signature -- just in time to get something done before the end of December, when several aid programs in the CARES Act are set to expire, including key pandemic jobless assistance measures and eviction protections.

The full bill text had not been released as of Sunday night. Here's some of what we know so far from summaries released by Democratic and Republican leadership:

  • Stimulus checks: The package would send direct stimulus payments of $600 to individuals, half the amount provided in the first round of checks that went out in the spring
  • Unemployment benefits: The jobless would receive a $300 weekly federal enhancement in benefits for 11 weeks, from the end of December through mid-March under the deal. The amount is half of the earlier federal boost, which ran out at the end of July.
  • Small business loans: The bill would reopen the Paycheck Protection Program so that some of the hardest-hit small businesses can apply for a second loan. The program stopped taking applications for the first round of loans in August.

Read more about what we know here.

3:02 a.m. ET, December 21, 2020

Saudi Arabia suspends all international flights to the kingdom

From CNN’s Hamdi Alkhshali and Hira Humayun in Atlanta

Saudi Arabia is suspending all international flights following news of the new coronavirus variant, according the Ministry of Interior, state news reported Sunday.

The Saudi government has decided to suspend all international flights for travelers for a week -- and that could be extended, according to Saudi Press Agency (SPA). Exceptions to this include foreign flights currently in the Kingdom’s territory which will be allowed to leave.

Entry into Saudi Arabia through land and sea ports is also suspended for a week, with the possibility of being extended for another week. 

Those who entered Saudi Arabia from one of the European countries or any country where the epidemic appeared since December 8 have to adhere to measures including quarantining at home for two weeks, starting from the date of entry into Saudi Arabia.

They also need to get tested for the virus during this period, with repeated tests every five days. 

“Anyone who returned from or passed through a European country or any country where the epidemic appeared -- during the past three months -- must conduct an examination for the emerging corona virus (Covid 19)," SPA added.
The above-mentioned excludes movement of goods, commodities and supply chains from countries where the mutated virus has not appeared, as determined by the Ministry of Health in coordination with the Ministry of Transport.”