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SAINT PETERSBURG/ SYDNEY: Australia's largest city Sydney entered a two-week lockdown Saturday to contain a sudden coronavirus surge and Russia's Saint Petersburg announced a record death toll, as several European nations lifted restrictions despite the worrying spread of the highly contagious Delta variant.

While vaccination drives have brought down infections in wealthy countries, the Delta strain, which first emerged in India, has fuelled fears that the pandemic may be far from over after claiming nearly four million lives.

Bangladesh announced that it would impose a new national lockdown from Monday over the variant, with offices shut for a week and only medical-related transport allowed. Sydney's normally bustling harbourside centre was nearly deserted after people were ordered to stay home except for essential trips to contain on outbreak of the variant.

New Zealand, citing "multiple outbreaks" in Australia, announced a three-day suspension of its quarantine-free travel arrangement with its larger neighbour. The Sydney lockdown, affecting more than five million people in the city and nearby towns, was met with dismay after months of very few cases.

The Delta variant has also been fuelling rising case numbers in Russia, where Saint Petersburg on Saturday reported the country's highest daily Covid-19 death toll for a city since the start of the pandemic. Russia's second city, which has hosted six Euro 2020 matches and is due to host a quarter-final next Friday, recorded 107 virus deaths over the last 24 hours.

Europe unmasks

Globally the pandemic is still slowing down, with the World Health Organization reporting the lowest number of new cases worldwide since February and decreasing deaths attributed to Covid-19. But there is rising concern over the Delta variant, which has now spread to at least 85 countries and is the most contagious of any Covid-19 strain identified, according to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Some European countries are nonetheless easing restrictions as mass vaccination campaigns continue. Spain brought an end to mandatory outdoor mask-wearing on Saturday, although many residents in Madrid, where a major coronavirus cluster has been discovered, are keeping their faces covered for now.

The Netherlands also ended its rules on outdoor mask-wearing, while easing restrictions on indoor dining and reopening nightclubs to people who have tested negative. And Switzerland scrapped most of its remaining restrictions after Health Minister Alain Berset said that the country's use of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines gave adequate protection against the Delta variant.

In Britain, where the rapid progression of the Delta variant has forced the government to delay its full reopening, thousands of anti-lockdown protesters meanwhile took to the streets of London to voice their frustration.

The Delta variant is so contagious that experts say more than 80 percent of a population would need to be jabbed in order to contain it - a challenging target even for nations with significant vaccination programmes. Israel, which has one of the world's most successful vaccination campaigns, has seen infections linked to the variant surge since dropping a requirement to wear masks in enclosed public places 10 days ago. After four days of more than 100 new cases a day, the health ministry reversed the decision.

The variant is also fuelling an alarming rise in infections in several countries across Africa, where cases as a whole jumped 25 percent over the past week. South Africa, the continent's hardest-hit country, warned Saturday that soaring caseloads linked to the Delta variant were forcing authorities to consider tighter restrictions.

In India meanwhile, where the Delta variant was first detected around April, the human impact of the pandemic has been laid bare after seasonal flooding of the Ganges river flushed out shallow graves where hundreds were buried at the peak of the crisis.

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