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The Latest: South Africa loosens coronavirus restrictions

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa, which had one of the world’s strictest anti-coronavirus lockdowns for five months, relaxed its restrictions on Tuesday in response to a decrease in new cases.

The country loosened its regulations to permit the sales of alcohol and cigarettes, and the reopening of bars, restaurants, gyms and places of worship, all limited to no more than 50 people. Schools will reopen gradually starting Aug. 24.

With more than 589,000 confirmed cases, South Africa has more than half of all reported cases in Africa. The 54 countries of the continent reported a total of more than 1.1 million cases on Tuesday, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

South Africa has recorded more than 11,900 deaths from COVID-19, while overall the continent has reported just over 25,800 deaths. The actual numbers of cases and deaths are estimated to be much higher, say health experts.

South Africa’s new confirmed cases have dropped from an average of 12,000 per day at the peak in July to less than 5,000 per day last week. The country confirmed 2,541 new cases on Tuesday.

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HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— Report: U.S. nursing home cases up nearly 80% in COVID-19 rebound

— Washington's National Zoo awaits birth of pandemic panda cub

— Pandemic reshaping air travel as carriers struggle

— Universities scramble to deal with virus outbreaks

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— Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea will ban large public gatherings and shut down churches and nightspots in the greater capital area following an alarming surge in coronavirus cases.

In a nationally televised announcement on Tuesday, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said strengthening social distancing restrictions for the Seoul metropolitan area — home to around half of the country’s 51 million people — was inevitable because a failure to slow transmissions there could result in a major outbreak nationwide.

The measures, which will take effect Wednesday in Seoul and nearby Gyeonggi province and the city of Incheon, prohibit gatherings of more than 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors. Nightclubs, karaoke rooms, buffet restaurants, computer gaming cafes and other “high-risk” facilities will be shut, while churches will be required to entirely convert their worship services online.

Chung or other government officials didn’t immediately say how long the measures would be in place.

South Korea reported 246 new cases of the coronavirus on Tuesday, raising its total for the last five days to 959.

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ATHENS, Greece — Greece’s health minister says his country will receive around 3 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine being developed by the University of Oxford and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, in batches beginning in December.

Speaking on Greece’s Skai TV on Tuesday, Vassilis Kikilias said the country of around 11 million people would initially receive 700,000 doses of the vaccine, which is currently in advanced trials, at the end of December, and would receive the rest in batches in the following months.

Kikilias referred to an announcement by European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen, who tweeted on Aug. 14 that the Commission had concluded the “first agreement” on the purchase of up to 400 million doses of the future vaccine.

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean health officials said Tuesday that they have found 457 coronavirus cases linked to a huge Seoul church led by a bitter critic of the country’s president, driving an alarming surge of infections in the greater capital area.

Kwon Jun-wook, director of South Korea’s National Health Institute, said outbreaks at the Sarang Jeil Church and elsewhere have pushed the country into the biggest crisis yet since the emergence of COVID-19.

He said a failure to slow transmissions in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, home to nearly 26 million people, could create a situation comparable to the “miserable scenes of the United States or European countries.”

There’s concern that the virus’s spread could worsen after thousand of protesters, including members of the church and its ultra-right pastor, Jun Kwang-hun, marched in downtown Seoul on Saturday. Jun, who was unmasked and shared a microphone with several anti-government activists on a stage during the protest, tested positive on Monday and is now receiving treatment at a Seoul hospital.

Health officials have so far tested 2,500 of the church’s 4,000 members, but they expressed concern that many of them are refusing to come forward for testing. Police are pursuing some 800 church members who have been out of contact.

South Korea reported 246 new cases of the coronavirus on Tuesday, raising its total for the last five days to 959.

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TOKYO — Japanese Emperor Naruhito, his wife, Empress Masako, and their daughter Aiko have canceled their annual trip to a summer resort, citing social distancing challenges amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Every year, the imperial family has taken a week or two off and gone to Nasu, an area with forested mountains and “onsen” hot springs, about 190 kilometers (110 miles) north of Tokyo.

The getaway was canceled this year because a large crowd usually gathers to catch a glimpse of them, and travel involves a large staff and security, the Imperial Household Agency said Tuesday.

Naruhito ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne after his father stepped down last year. Unlike the wartime emperor, Naruhito’s grandfather, the imperial role holds no political power but is widely recognized as a cultural and emotional symbol for Japan.

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BEIJING — The head of a major state-owned Chinese pharmaceutical company says its coronavirus vaccine will be commercially available by the end of the year.

Liu Jingzhen, the chairman of SinoPharm, told a Chinese Communist Party newspaper that the vaccine would cost less than 1,000 yuan ($140) and be given in two shots, 28 days apart. He said that students and workers in major cities would need to get the vaccine, but not those living in sparsely populated rural areas.

“Not all of the 1.4 billion people in our country have to take it,” he said in an interview published Tuesday in the Guangming Daily.

SinoPharm, which has two vaccines in trial, has an annual manufacturing capacity of 220 million doses, Liu said.

Liu, who is also the company’s Communist Party secretary, told the paper that he had been injected with the vaccine. Reports that Chinese researchers and executives have received shots of their vaccines have raised ethical questions in some scientific circles.

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand’s leader has hit back at President Donald Trump’s claim that New Zealand is experiencing a big surge in coronavirus cases.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Tuesday that Trump’s comments were “patently wrong.”

“I think for anyone who’s following COVID and its transmission globally will quite easily see that New Zealand’s nine cases in a day does not compare to the United States' tens of thousands,” Ardern told reporters.

Trump made the comments Monday at a campaign stop in Mankato, Minnesota. He said some countries held up as models for their virus response were now saying “whoops.”

“You see what’s going on in New Zealand,” Trump said. “They beat it, they beat it. It was like front page, they beat it. Because they wanted to show me something. The problem is, big surge in New Zealand. So, you know, it’s terrible, we don’t want that.”

The U.S., with a population of about 330 million, has reported more than 170,000 virus deaths. New Zealand, with a population of 5 million, has reported 22 deaths.

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NEW DELHI — India reported more than 55,000 new cases on Tuesday, putting its total virus caseload past 2.7 million.

India has the third-most cases, behind the U.S. and Brazil. It also has the fourth-most deaths from the coronavirus, with 51,797.

But India's deaths per million people stands at 34 — far lower than what has been reported in some North American and European countries.

India has been recording at least 50,000 new infections per day since mid-July as the disease has spread from cities like Mumbai and New Delhi into densely populated states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

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JAKARTA, Indonesia — The World Health Organization says countries in the Western Pacific — a vast region comprising nearly 1.9 billion people — have entered a new phase of coronavirus pandemic response and urged regional governments to continue to promote behavior that protects community health.

This is “the phase where governments will need to deal with multiple increases or surges, but in a sustainable way,” said Dr. Takeshi Kasai, the WHO’s regional director for the Western Pacific.

He said governments will need to have earlier targeted responses to outbreaks, continue to improve health care systems, and promote healthy “new normal” habits that will help prevent the spread of the virus.

“Approaches like this could be more effective and minimize social disruptions and impact on economies,” Kasai said.

The WHO also warned that countries in the region — including Australia, the Philippines and Japan — are reporting increasing numbers of people under 40 contracting the virus.

“Many are unaware they are infected with very mild symptoms, or none at all,” Kasai said. “This can result in them unknowingly passing on the virus to others.”

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MELBOURNE, Australia — An epidemiologist told an inquiry on Tuesday that almost all of a second wave of coronavirus infections in Australia’s hard-hit Victoria state can be traced back to returned travelers in two Melbourne hotels.

Department of Health and Human Services epidemiologist Charles Alpren was testifying at a state government-appointed inquiry into failures in a quarantine system that required Australians returning from overseas to isolate in Melbourne hotels for two weeks.

Alpren said “99%” of Victoria’s current coronavirus infections were linked to the Rydges on Swanston and Stamford Plaza hotels.

He said the Rydges outbreak started with a family of four who returned from overseas on May 9.

Some 46 workers from the Stamford Plaza and their close contacts were found to have caught COVID-19 from a man who returned from overseas on June 1 and a couple who returned on June 11, Alpren said.

Melbourne has been locked down for a second time due to the second wave of infections that has resulted in as many as 725 new cases and 25 deaths in a day.

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MANILA, Philippines -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has decided to ease a mild lockdown in the capital and four outlying provinces to further reopen the country’s battered economy in a high-risk gamble despite having the highest number of coronavirus infections in Southeast Asia.

Duterte’s decision, which he announced late Monday, would allow most businesses, including shopping malls and dine-in restaurants, and Roman Catholic church services to partially resume on Wednesday with restrictions, including the wearing of face masks and keeping people safely apart.

Duterte shifted metropolitan Manila and the nearby provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal, a region of about 25 million people, back to a mild lockdown two weeks ago after leading groups of doctors warned hospitals were being overwhelmed again by COVID-19 patients and pleaded for a “time out.” They also asked the government to recalibrate its response to the pandemic.

The Philippines has reported more than 164,000 of confirmed cases, including 2,681 deaths.

Duterte’s administration has been under intense pressure to revive the economy after it fell into a recession in the second quarter and millions lost their jobs.

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SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea has reported 246 new cases of the coronavirus, its fifth consecutive day of a triple-digit increase, as the virus continues to spread quickly in the greater capital area where churches have emerged as major clusters.

The figures announced by South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday pushed the five-day total to 959 and the national caseload to 15,761, including 306 deaths.

The KCDC said 202 of the new cases were reported from the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of South Korea’s 51 million population, where health workers have been struggling to track transmissions stemming from church gatherings, restaurants, schools and workers.

A northern Seoul church led by a bitter critic of South Korean President Moon Jae-in has emerged as a major cluster of infections, with health workers as of Monday afternoon detecting more than 300 infections linked to its members.

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MELBOURNE — Australia’s coronavirus hot spot Victoria state on Tuesday reported its lowest tally of new infections in a month.

Victoria’s Health Department reported 222 news cases, the lowest daily tally since 217 were recorded on July 18.

The state also reported 17 deaths following a daily record of 25 fatalities on Monday.

Infections have been trending down after a second lockdown came into force in the state capital Melbourne in early August that included a curfew and mandatory mask-wearing.

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