The Latest: S. Korea, Singapore discuss July travel bubble

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea is talking with Singapore about opening its first “travel bubble” in July, which would allow vaccinated travelers on direct flights to bypass quarantine.

Health officials said Wednesday the country has also proposed bubbles with Taiwan, Thailand and the U.S. Pacific territories of Guam and Saipan as they look to ease pandemic-related traveling restrictions to revive ailing tourism and airline industries.

South Korea currently mandates two-week quarantines on most passengers arriving from abroad.

Senior Health Ministry official Yoon Taeho said the country will initially open its travel bubbles only to fully vaccinated travelers arriving on direct flights and group tours who could be monitored by their travel agencies. To bypass quarantine, bubble travelers must have vaccination documents and be cleared by COVID-19 tests upon arrival.

Officials said talks on opening the travel bubbles may not proceed quickly in places where the virus situation is fluctuating. Thailand has experienced its worst outbreak of the pandemic in recent weeks, still regularly exceeding 2,000 new cases daily, and Singapore and Taiwan have been dealing with worrisome new clusters.

As of Wednesday, around 9.2 million South Koreans have received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine, accounting for about 18% of the country’s population.

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MORE ON THE PANDEMIC:

— US increasingly unlikely to meet Biden’s July 4 vaccination goal

— US investigation scrutinizes hypothesis that virus leaked from Chinese lab

— UN urges action to end AIDS, saying COVID-19 hurt progress

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

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

MELBOURNE, Australia — Australia’s second-largest city will emerge from its fourth pandemic lockdown Friday.

But some restrictions will remain and the 5 million residents of Melbourne won’t be allowed to travel to regional centers in surrounding Victoria state.

State officials say the lockdown is being ended after two weeks following only one new coronavirus case being detected in the latest 24-hour period linked to the Melbourne cluster. The new case brings the number of infections in the cluster to 68.

Children will be able to return to school Friday and travel restrictions will be changed to allow Melbourne residents to travel up to 25 kilometers (16 miles) for non-essential reasons rather than 10 kilometers (6 miles).

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BEIJING — The southern China metropolis of Guangzhou has ordered the closure of cinemas, theaters, nightclubs and other indoor entertainment venues as authorities seek to contain the country’s latest coronavirus outbreak.

The controls announced Wednesday are even stricter in parts of the city where the risk of infection is categorized as high or moderate. Guangzhou has isolated several neighborhoods where cases have been detected and barred people from leaving the city or the surrounding province of Guangdong unless absolutely necessary.

Guangzhou has reported more than 100 cases of local transmission since May 21, with eight more announced Wednesday. Doctors say the cases in Guangzhou were caused by the more contagious delta variant that was first identified in India.

China has largely eliminated local transmissions elsewhere, with a total of 91,316 virus cases and 4,636 COVID-19 deaths reported in the country.

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JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s health minister has been placed on special leave over a corruption scandal involving an irregular government contract.

Zweli Mkhize has been spearheading the COVID-19 response in South Africa, which has the most cases and deaths in Africa.

The contract saw $11 million paid by the health department Mkhize heads to a company connected to two people who used to work for him.

The move was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa in a statement from his office Tuesday. It said Mkhize was placed on special leave “to attend to allegations and investigations” around the irregular contract.

South Africa’s minister of tourism will stand in as the acting minister of health.

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MILWAUKEE — A former pharmacist in Wisconsin who intentionally ruined more than 500 doses of COVID-19 vaccine has been sentenced to three years in prison.

Steven Brandenburg, of Grafton, was sentenced Tuesday after pleading guilty in February to two felony counts of attempting to tamper with a consumer product. He had admitted to removing the doses manufactured by Moderna from a refrigerator for hours at Aurora Medical Center in Grafton, just north of Milwaukee. Brandenburg said in a statement before receiving his sentence that he felt “great shame” and accepted responsibility for his actions. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports he apologized to his co-workers, family and the community.

Prosecutors asked for a sentence of three years and five months. Brandenburg faced a maximum penalty of 10 years of imprisonment and $250,000 in fines for each felony count.

Brandenburg is an admitted conspiracy theorist who believes vaccines are a product of the devil. Brandenburg also secretly substituted saline for flu vaccine that he was mandated to receive and persuaded several co-workers to secretly swap saline for their flu vaccine as well, according to court filings.

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