WHO says vaccine hoarding ‘keeps pandemic burning’

WHO chief Tedros urges rich countries fighting over supplies to consider the situation in poorer parts of the world.

Pallbearers carry the coffin of former South African Cabinet minister Jackson Mthembu, who died of COVID-19 [Kopano Tlape/South African Government Communication and Information Services/AP]
Pallbearers carry the coffin of former South African Cabinet minister Jackson Mthembu, who died of COVID-19 [Kopano Tlape/South African Government Communication and Information Services/AP]
  • The World Health Organization said hoarding of coronavirus vaccine shots “keeps the pandemic burning”.
  • Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot coronavirus vaccine appears to be less strong as some two-shot rivals, with 66 percent overall effectiveness.
  • On Friday, Novavax, a US-based company, announced its coronavirus vaccine appears to be 89 percent effective based on early findings from a British study, and that it also seems to work – though not as well – against new mutated versions of the virus circulating in the United Kingdom and South Africa.
  • Worldwide, the pandemic has killed more than two million people and infected nearly 101 million, according to data from the Johns Hopkins University.

This blog is now closed. These were Friday’s updates on the coronavirus pandemic:

French PM says we can still avoid a third COVID lockdown

Prime Minister Jean Castex says the coronavirus variants first detected in the UK and South Africa posed a dangerous risk to France but that a third nationwide lockdown could still be avoided.

Instead, Castex said France would further tighten COVID-19 controls at its borders, reduce the number of people allowed into shopping malls and increase police controls against people breaking a nightly curfew.

Italy to relax COVID curbs in many regions, worrying some experts

Italy says it will ease coronavirus restrictions across much of the country from Monday, despite warnings from health experts that the move was risky given concern over the spread of more contagious variants.

After a review of latest COVID-19 data, the health ministry said it was shifting 11 regions from orange to so-called yellow zones, giving inhabitants there greater freedom to travel and allowing bars and restaurants to reopen during the day.

Italy has registered almost 88,000 coronavirus-related deaths since the disease first came to light last February — the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the sixth highest in the world [File: Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters]

Northern Ireland leader on ‘aggressive’ EU vaccines move

Northern Ireland’s first minister has denounced an EU move to introduce tighter rules Friday on exports of COVID-19 vaccines that could hit shipments to nations like the United Kingdom as “hostile and aggressive”.

Arlene Foster likened the bloc’s triggering of Article 16 of the Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol to putting a “hard border in place” on the island of Ireland.

The EU insisted that is not an export ban, although it could be used to block shipments to the UK or other non-EU countries.

DUP leader Arlene Foster [File: Phil Noble/Reuters]

More than half of Moscow residents have had coronavirus – TASS cites mayor

The mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, has claimed that more than a half of Moscow residents have already had coronavirus, TASS news agency reported citing his interview for Rossiya 1 TV channel.

“Over a half of Moscow have had it,” Sobyanin was quoted as saying.


Spain FM urges pharmaceuticals to be transparent

Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya has urged pharmaceutical companies to be more transparent regarding issues they may be facing over the roll-out of coronavirus vaccines.

“It is part of building confidence,” she said, addressing the World Economic Forum via video call.


Germany restricts travel from virus variant countries

Germany will impose restrictions on travel from Brazil, the UK, Portugal and South Africa, the countries in which more infectious variants of the coronavirus are in wide circulation, news agencies have reported.

“In addition to existing test and quarantine rules … a temporary limitation shall be imposed on carriage of travellers from countries designated as regions with variants,” reads the regulation.

Health officials have grown increasingly worried about the new variants which, by being more infectious and spreading more quickly, are able more rapidly to bring health systems to a point of overload.

Officers of the German Federal Police check passengers arriving with a plane from Prague at the Frankfurt Airport in Frankfurt, Germany [Boris Roessler/DPA/AP]

Hoarding vaccine ‘keeps the pandemic burning’: WHO

Rich countries squabbling over COVID-19 vaccine supplies must consider the situation in poorer parts of the world, the WHO said, warning that hoarding of shots “keeps the pandemic burning”.

WHO Chief Tedros previously said vaccine hoarding could lead to a “catastrophic moral failure”, a simmering pandemic and a slow economic recovery around the world.

Thomas Poggy of Yale University told Al Jazeera that there were “two different moral failures”.

“One failure is the distribution of the vaccine, the other is that we are not producing vaccines fast enough,” he said.

“If we use all the capacity for manufacturing vaccines, we could achieve much quicker production of the vaccine and thereby serve the whole world, much faster than we are doing right now.”


White House optimistic on J&J vaccine as mutations spread

White House Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci said the data released by Johnson & Johnson showed positives even as data shows it is less effective against the South African variant. “The results are really encouraging,” Fauci said during a briefing.

“There were essentially no hospitalisations or deaths in the vaccine group.”

The overall efficacy for severe disease was “85 percent”, Fauci said, and Johnson & Johnson will be able to cheaply produce “billions” of the vaccine, which only requires one shot.

Read more here.

Dr Anthony Fauci [File: Patrick Semansky/AP]

WHO official urges caution on Wuhan team’s mission

WHO officials say their team of experts on the ground in China are in a “dynamic situation” and it remains unclear what facilities and areas they will be able to visit.

The team visited a hospital where China says the first COVID-19 patients were treated more than a year ago, as part of the experts’ long-awaited fact-finding mission on the origins of the coronavirus.

Earlier in the day, they had their first in-person meetings with Chinese officials at a hotel, ahead of field visits in and around the central city of Wuhan.


Golf’s Oman Open off after COVID decree

The Oman Open, which was scheduled to take place in March, has been postponed after the nation called an immediate and sweeping halt to all sporting events.

The European PGA Tour event was due to take place from March 4-7 at Al Mouj Golf in Muscat.

A ruling decreed all gatherings, international functions and sporting events would be stopped in the country with immediate effect.


EU adopts COVID-19 vaccine export control scheme

The European Commission has launched a scheme to monitor and in some cases bar exports of vaccines produced in EU plants, amid a dispute with British-Swedish drugs giant AstraZeneca.

The move was firmly criticised by the World Health Organization (WHO) and risked stoking conflict with the UK just weeks after London and Brussels sealed a trade deal.

“We paid these companies to increase production and now we expect them to deliver,” EU Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis told reporters.

“Today’s measure has been adopted with the utmost urgency. The aim is to provide us immediately with full transparency … And if needed, it also will provide us with a tool to ensure vaccine deliveries.”

Read more here.


Brussels has been in a furious dispute with AstraZeneca this week, accusing it of breaching its contract by delaying deliveries to EU governments while maintaining those under a deal it signed earlier with the UK [File: Bernat Armangue/AP]

Africa’s largest film festival postponed by pandemic

Africa’s biggest film festival, which had been scheduled to run in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou from February 27 to March 6, has been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Pan-African Festival of Cinema and Television of Ouagadougou, known by its acronym in French of FESPACO, is an eagerly-awaited showcase held every two years.


Canada to quarantine travellers, suspend flights south: Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced stricter restrictions on travellers in response to new, likely more contagious variants of the novel coronavirus – including making it mandatory for travellers to quarantine in a hotel at their own expense when they arrive in Canada and suspending airline service to Mexico and all Caribbean destinations until April 30.

Trudeau said in addition to the pre-boarding test Canada already requires, the government will be introducing mandatory PCR testing at the airport for people returning to Canada.

“Travelers will then have to wait for up to three days at an approved hotel for their test results, at their own expense, which is expected to be more than $2,000,” Trudeau said.

The prime minister said those with positive tests will be immediately required to quarantine in designated government facilities to make sure they are not carrying variants of particular concern [File: Blair Gable/Reuters]

Netherlands PM regrets slow vaccination start, fears lack of supply

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Friday he regretted the Netherlands’s slow start on coronavirus vaccinations, but that he was more concerned about the current lack of supply.

“I regret it enormously, but we’ll catch up,” he told reporters in The Hague.

About 1 percent of the Dutch population have been vaccinated so far, mostly medical professionals. Rutte said the Netherlands had enough vaccine for 2-3 percent of the population.


AstraZeneca welcomes EU agency’s approval of vaccine

Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca has welcomed the EU regulator’s approval of its coronavirus vaccine, although the two groups remain locked in a dispute over its supply.

“Today’s recommendation underscores the value of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine which is not only effective and well-tolerated but also easy to administer,” said AstraZeneca boss Pascal Soriot.


Poland to receive 25 percent fewer doses of Moderna vaccine in Feb – PAP

Poland will receive 25 percent fewer doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine than expected in February, PAP, the state news agency reported, citing the Material Reserves Agency.

Poland was expecting to receive 400,000 doses of the vaccine but will receive 300,000 instead, according to PAP.


Canada to quarantine travellers in hotels: Sources

An official familiar with the matter says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will announce stricter restrictions on travellers in response to new, likely more contagious variants of the novel coronavirus – including making it mandatory for travellers to quarantine in a hotel at their own expense when they arrive in Canada.

The official spoke to The Associated Press news agency on condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to speak ahead of Friday’s planned announcement.


The engine of the US economy, consumer spending, stutters again

Business-sapping restrictions designed to contain spiralling COVID-19 infections slammed the brakes on the engine of the United States economy in December, as consumers kept their wallets snapped shut and hunkered down at home.

Consumer spending, which drives roughly two-thirds of US economic growth, fell by $27.9bn or 0.2 percent in December, marking the second straight month of decline, the US Department of Commerce said.

Read more here.


EU regulator authorises AstraZeneca vaccine for all adults

Regulators have authorised AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine for use in adults throughout the EU, amid criticism the bloc is not moving fast enough to vaccinate its population.

The European Medicines Agency licensed the vaccine to be used in people 18 and older, though concerns had been raised this week that not enough data exist to prove it works in older people.

The shot is the third COVID-19 vaccine given the green light by the European Medicines Agency, after ones made by Pfizer and Moderna. Both were authorised for all adults.

A health worker fills a syringe with a dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at the Appleton Village Pharmacy, amid the coronavirus disease outbreak, in Widnes, Britain [File: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters]

Bolivian doctors demand lockdown as virus overwhelms hospitals

Bolivian doctors are demanding a nationwide lockdown and threatening to stop taking in new patients as a surge in COVID-19 cases, which they say is killing an average of one medic per day, strains hospitals to breaking point.

New daily coronavirus infections in the Andean country, which received its first batch of Russian Sputnik V vaccines on Thursday, hit a single-day record of 2,866 this week and deaths attributed to the epidemic climbed above 10,000.

Read more here.


EU agrees to new coronavirus travel curbs

EU member state ambassadors have approved a new map of coronavirus danger zones across the bloc, allowing authorities to impose stricter regional travel restrictions.

The European Commission remains opposed to a blanket travel ban or closures of national borders across the EU, despite some members seeking tougher measures.

But Brussels does want to “strongly discourage non-essential travel” and the map from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control is part of that effort.


Catalan election to be held on February 14 after court annuls move to postpone it

Catalonia will elect its parliament on February 14, after a court annulled the regional government’s plan to move the vote to May 30 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The election is considered a litmus test for the Catalan separatist movement.

Spain has more than 2.7 million coronavirus cases and nearly 58,000 deaths [File: Nacho Doce/Reuters]

J&J vaccine moderately effective, less against S. Africa variant

Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot COVID-19 vaccine has overall efficacy of 66 percent, the company announced on Friday, following results from a phase 3 trial of almost 44,000 people across many countries.

The figure, however, was as high as 72 percent in the United States but went down to 57 percent in South Africa, where a more transmissible variant is dominant.

The company added that the vaccine was 85 percent effective in preventing severe COVID-19 across all geographical regions.

Read more here.


Signs of another wave in South Korea

South Korea has delayed until Sunday any easing of social distancing measures because outbreaks involving mission schools are threatening to undermine efforts to keep new infections under control ahead of the Lunar New Year holidays starting on February 12.

The number of cases linked to Christian schools nationwide grew further, reaching 344 infections in total in seven facilities.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun cited experts who view the recent surge in cases as a sign of another significant wave of infections.

A health worker wearing a protective suit enjoys the falling snow at a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing site in Seoul, South Korea [Reuters]

Pfizer vaccine not linked to post-jab deaths: EU regulator

The Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus jab has no link to reported post-vaccination deaths and no new side effects, said the EU’s medicines regulator.

The update by the Amsterdam-based European Medicines Agency (EMA) followed reports that dozens of mainly elderly people had died in Norway and other European countries after receiving a first shot of the vaccine.

The EMA said it had looked at the deaths and “concluded that the data did not show a link to vaccination with Comirnaty (the vaccine) and the cases do not raise a safety concern”.


Italy to get 20 percent fewer Moderna vaccines

The US drug company Moderna will deliver 20 percent fewer vaccines to Italy than promised, said Italy’s special commissioner for COVID-19.

“Minutes ago, Moderna told us about the cut in the distribution of its vaccines. In the week beginning February 7, only 132,000 doses will arrive, 20 percent less than agreed,” Domenico Arcuri said.

Italy, the country with the second-highest toll of COVID-19 deaths in Europe after the United Kingdom, is also grappling with delays in vaccine deliveries by Pfizer, to which Rome has already sent a formal warning letter.

Italy, the country with the second-highest toll of COVID-19 deaths in Europe after the UK, is also grappling with delays in vaccine deliveries by the Pfizer [Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters]
“As of today, we are missing 300,000 vaccine doses. Every day there is worse news than the day before. Vaccines are not soft drinks or snacks, they are the only antidote to the dark night that has lasted a year,” Arcuri told a news conference, adding that decisions on deliveries were being taken unilaterally and without notice.


AstraZeneca agrees to publish contract signed with EU

Following repeated requests from the EU Commission, drug company AstraZeneca has agreed to publish the redacted contract signed with the EU, including details of invoices.

“Transparency and accountability are important to help build the trust of European citizens and to make sure that they can rely on the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines purchased at the EU level,” read a statement from the EU body.

The news comes amid a bitter dispute between the two parties triggered last week by the drug company’s announcement that it would cut supplies to the EU in the first quarter of this year, citing production issues. The commission now hopes to prove that the company had breached a commitment on vaccine deliveries.

Read more about the dispute here.


Ukraine bans use of Russian vaccines

Ukraine’s parliament has approved a bill intended to speed up the approval of vaccines, while also banning approval of shots made in Russia.

The government has said it expects to receive 100,000 to 200,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine under the global COVAX scheme in February.

No vaccine has yet been approved in Ukraine but authorities have repeatedly said Kyiv will not approve or use vaccines from Russia, with which it is at loggerheads.


Dengvaxia controversy haunts Duterte’s vaccine roll out

Gene Nisperos is an associate professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Medicine in the country’s capital, Manila. As a medical front-liner, he is on the priority list for vaccination against the coronavirus when the government releases its promised first vaccines next month.

But Nisperos has grave doubts about President Rodrigo Duterte’s plan. The medic is particularly critical of the government’s decision to disallow Filipinos from choosing the type of coronavirus vaccine they receive.

To get to know more, read the full story here.


Malaysia’s latest figures

Malaysia has reported 5,725 new coronavirus cases, the highest daily increase since the start of the pandemic a year ago.

The new cases took the cumulative total of infections past the 200,000 mark. Health authorities also reported 16 deaths, raising total fatalities to 733.

A family member of a victim of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) prays after a burial at a cemetery, in Batu Caves, Malaysia [Lim Huey Teng/Reuters]

WHO team visits hospital in Wuhan amid ongoing probe

A WHO-led team of experts investigating the origins of COVID-19 has visited a hospital in the Chinese city of Wuhan that was one of the first to treat patients in the early days of the outbreak.

The team went to the Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine where Zhang Jixian, director of the hospital’s department of respiratory and critical care, has been cited by state media as the first to report the novel coronavirus, after treating an elderly couple in late 2019 whose CT scans showed differences from typical pneumonia.

“Extremely important 1st site visit. We are in the hospital that treated some of the first known cases of COVID-19, meeting with the actual clinicians & staff who did this work, having open discussion about the details of their work,” Peter Daszak, a member of the WHO-led team, wrote on Twitter.

The team was released from two weeks of quarantine on Thursday. It plans to visit labs, markets and hospitals during its remaining two weeks in Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first identified in late 2019.


Germany expects ‘limits’ on EMA AstraZeneca approval

Germany expects EU regulator EMA to impose restrictions when it authorises the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the bloc as efficacy data for older people are insufficient, said Health Minister Jens Spahn.

“We’re not expecting an authorisation without limits,” he told a press conference.

The EMA is on Friday due to approve the vaccine developed with the University of Oxford. However, questions remain about how well the AstraZeneca vaccine protects older people. Only 12 percent of the participants in its research were older than 55 and they were enrolled later, so there hasn’t been enough time to get results.

Germany’s vaccine commission said on Thursday it could not recommend the use of the jabs on people aged 65 years and older because efficacy data for the group were lacking. Britain’s medicines regulatory agency also acknowledged the limited data in older people but still cleared the shot last month for all adults, with some caution for pregnant women.


EU chief wants to publish AstraZeneca contract

The European Commission plans to publish a redacted copy of its contract with drugs giant AstraZeneca, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said, amid a dispute over delays to vaccine deliveries.

“We want to publish it today. We are talking to the company about which parts have to be blacked out,” she told German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.


Vietnam to begin mass testing

Vietnam will conduct mass testing for COVID-19 in the northern province of Hai Duong, the epicentre of a new outbreak of the coronavirus, and other affected areas, according to deputy health minister Nguyen Truong Son.

Vietnam has reported 93 locally transmitted infections since the outbreak emerged on Thursday, most linked to an electronics factory in the province. In a statement on the government’s website, Son said most of the remaining 2,340 workers at the factory had subsequently tested negative for the virus.

A health worker takes a swab sample from a resident, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Hai Duong province, Vietnam [Manh Minh/VNA/Handout via Reuters]

UK to not disclose vaccine contract due to national security risk: junior minister

The UK will not publish the vaccine contract it has with AstraZeneca because it would risk national security, said a junior minister.

“Where it is appropriate for the public to be informed we have done so but if that risks national security for any reason, of course, we should not,” British prisons minister Lucy Frazer said when asked why the government was worried about the publication of the contract.

Pressed further on the risk to national security, she said: “Well, that is my understanding,” he told LBC Radio.


UK bans UAE flights

The UK is banning direct passenger flights to and from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from Friday, shutting down the world’s busiest international airline route from Dubai to London.

The UK said it was adding the UAE, Burundi and Rwanda to its coronavirus travel ban list because of worries over the spread of a more contagious and potentially vaccine-resistant COVID-19 variant first identified in South Africa.

Read the full story here.


Novavax says vaccine 89 percent effective in UK trial

Biotech company Novavax has said its coronavirus vaccine was 89.3 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 in a trial conducted in the United Kingdom, and was nearly as effective in protecting against the more highly contagious variant first discovered in the UK, according to a preliminary analysis.

A mid-stage trial of the vaccine in South Africa, where a troubling new variant of the virus is common, showed 60 percent effectiveness among people who did not have HIV.

Novavax shares surged 34 percent in after-hours trading following the release of the trial results on the same day the United States reported its first cases of the South African variant.

Read the full story here.


Brazil struggles to contain the outbreak

Brazil has vaccinated more than a million people, but that is less than 1 percent of the population. The country is struggling to contain the coronavirus and the situation seems far from resolving as a fast-spreader variant of the virus has already been detected in large cities such as Sao Paulo.

The Amazonas state’s capital, Manaus, is facing a shortage of oxygen with healthcare workers working around the clock to prevent patients from suffocating to death.

“You ask a nurse to help you and she says she can’t do anything because she is dealing with another patient who is dying in front of you,” said mourner Valceny Ferreira. “There aren’t enough healthcare workers to deal with this, but we wouldn’t be in this state if the Amazonas state would have invested in the healthcare,” she added.

Researches say the variant of the coronavirus detected in Japan originating in the Brazilian state of Amazonas is already dominant in its capital Manaus, reinforcing initial suspicions that it may be more contagious [Marcio James/AFP]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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