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Vaccine rollout delayed in Europe as global COVID deaths near 2 million

At the Meissen crematorium in Germany's Saxony state, coffins were stacked up to three high, or even stored in hallways, awaiting cremation.

January 15, 2021 / 10:27 PM IST
Representative Image

Representative Image

Pfizer-BioNTech said on Friday deliveries of its leading coronavirus vaccine to Europe will be delayed in the weeks ahead, hampering the rollout as global deaths from the pandemic close in on two million.

News of the vaccine setback came as World Health Organization experts were working on advice to fight new strains of the disease feared to be more contagious.

The soaring number of fatalities -- 1,994,833 -- is matched by the spread of infections, with Europe recording 30,003,905 cases, nearly a third of the worldwide total, according to an AFP tally based on official statistics.

The announcement that Pfizer-BioNTech shots would be delayed for up to a month during work to boost capacity at the US company's plant in Puurs, Belgium was met with dismay by many EU members.

Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the Baltic states called the vaccine holdup "unacceptable" -- although Berlin and Brussels said Pfizer had vowed to deliver the full quantities of doses promised for the first quarter before the end of March.

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COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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France had said earlier Friday that its pharma giant Sanofi could manufacture vaccines on behalf of other developers, including Pfizer-BioNTech, while awaiting approval of its own shot -- not expected before the end of the year.

With cases still mounting and vaccination drives still in their infancy, many countries are doubling down on virus restrictions.

Portugal entered a fresh lockdown Friday while Britain began requiring negative tests for entry, and new curbs on populations were announced from Italy to Brazil and Lebanon.

Looking to bring forward crisis talks with regional leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is pushing for a "significant" tightening of curbs to slow the country's infection rate after cases hit two million, participants at a meeting of her centre-right CDU party told AFP.

At the Meissen crematorium in Germany's Saxony state, coffins were stacked up to three high, or even stored in hallways, awaiting cremation.

Manager Joerg Schaldach, 57, said anyone still denying the severity of the pandemic should take a look at the bodies piling up.

"This is heavy work, so why don't the Covid-19 deniers come and do it," he said. "We have a disastrous situation here."

'Worrying'

Britain on Thursday said it would ban all arrivals from South American countries from Friday, over fears of importing a new coronavirus strain.

"I've taken the urgent decision... following evidence of a new variant in Brazil," said Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

The new strain, known as E484K, has raised alarm among researchers over its possible impact on immunity.

Brazil's northern Amazonas state announced a curfew from seven pm to six am as the health system is pushed to breaking point in the state capital Manaus.

Global health experts were expected on Friday to issue recommendations to stem the spread of this variant and other new strains, which the WHO called "worrying".

"When you first met almost a year ago, just 557 cases of the disease we now call Covid-19 had been reported to the WHO," director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told Thursday's emergency meeting in Geneva, which had been brought forward two weeks.

Elsewhere scientists have warned that anti-parasite drug ivermectin, promoted in Facebook posts and by some Latin American leaders like Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, should not be taken to treat coronavirus before more research is completed.

The European Medicines Agency also said hackers had leaked online documents stolen from the watchdog, some of them altered to sow doubt about vaccines among the public.

$1.9 trillion stimulus plan

European Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen backed a Greek call for an EU-wide digital vaccination certificate, which Athens hopes could relieve the bloc's battered travel and tourism industry.

There were signs of the strain from cross-Channel train operator Eurostar, said to be in "a very critical" state by an executive at top shareholder SNCF as it runs just one London-Paris connection per day.

Around the world, scientists see large-scale vaccination as the way out of the crisis -- but 95 percent of doses so far administered have been limited to just 10 countries, according to the WHO.

Progress on administering vaccines has often been slow.

India's mammoth immunisation programme will begin on Saturday. In the United States around 10 million people have received a first shot.

In Africa, Senegal said it would launch vaccinations by the end of March and Nigeria announced it would have 10 million vaccine doses by the end of the same month.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation with 200 million people, has officially reported 104,000 Covid-19 cases, of which 1,382 have been fatal. But the figures are believed to fall short of the real toll.

US policymakers are focused on addressing the economic damage from the pandemic, with President-elect Joe Biden unveiling a proposal for a $1.9 trillion relief package aimed at revitalising the world's largest economy.

He aims to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, help struggling state and local governments, safely reopen schools, boost the vaccination campaign and raise the size of stimulus cheques.

"In this moment of crisis... we cannot afford inaction," Biden said.

Follow our full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic here.
AFP

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