Europe bulk buys vaccines as WHO urges rich countries to share

Anna MALPAS with AFP bureaus
·4-min read

Europe rushed to bulk buy more coronavirus vaccine doses and approved more drugs on Friday, as the World Health Organisation called on wealthy nations not to hog all the available jabs and millions in Asia faced tough restrictions over isolated outbreaks.

The pandemic has already killed 1.9 million people out of 88 million infections and is picking up speed, with 14 percent more cases reported globally per day this week compared to the previous seven days, according to an AFP count.

As the world races for vaccines, the European Union said it had agreed an option for a further 300 million jabs from Pfizer/BioNTech, doubling its supply of the drug.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the bloc would have "more than enough" doses for its entire population thanks to the new deal as well as forthcoming approvals of other vaccines including a jab developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

Britain, freshly departed from the EU, approved its third vaccine on Friday from US firm Moderna, keeping ahead of its neighbours in terms of vaccines available and numbers inoculated.

But the WHO urged rich countries to stop cutting their own deals with manufacturers to snap up the first wave of vaccines, potentially bumping up the price for everyone else.

"No country is exceptional and should cut the queue and vaccinate all their population, while some remain with no supply," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, pushing wealthier countries to free up excess doses for the globally-shared Covax programme.

Bruce Aylward, the WHO lead on Covax, said that "50 percent of the high-income countries in the world are vaccinating today. Zero percent of the low-income countries are vaccinating. That is not equitable."

- New strain fears -

Despite nearly a year of intermittent restrictions across the globe, many countries are still recording record coronavirus numbers, including Britain which on Friday announced new highs of 1,325 deaths and 68,053 cases over 24 hours.

"The stark reality is that we will run out of beds for patients in the next couple of weeks unless the spread of the virus slows down drastically," London Mayor Sadiq Khan said, declaring a "major incident" in the capital.

Fears have been rising over new Covid-19 variants feared to be more transmissible that emerged in Britain and South Africa, but BioNTech brought some relief on Friday, saying its vaccine was effective against a "key mutation" found in the strains.

Romania became the latest country to confirm a case of the UK strain, in a 27-year-old woman who had not recently left the country, suggesting the variant had been in the country for some time.

Australia locked down its third-largest city Brisbane after detecting a single infection of the UK strain, with officials having to urge people to stop panic-buying as large queues formed outside shops.

"I don't think a three-day lockdown is going to hurt us at all. I think it's imperative to stamp out the virus," said resident Andy McPhee, 51.

China, where the original coronavirus first emerged in late 2019, meanwhile sealed off two cities and imposed travel restrictions on 18 million people after uncovering 127 cases.

"I am more worried than before," said Wu Xi, a medical worker in Shijiazhuang, the northern city at the heart of the new outbreak. "But I still believe the outbreak will be contained very soon. Stay strong."

Africa was spared the worst of the pandemic's first wave, but has seen a sharp surge in recent weeks, with Senegal recording its highest death and infections figures -- eight and 296, respectively -- on Friday.

At a hospital Nigerian megacity Lagos, managing director Ngozi Onyia likened the surge in cases to a "tsunami".

"I'm making tough calls -- who to take into the treatment centre, who to put on one of our four ventilators -- ethical decisions I've never had to make in 38-plus years," she said.

Greece meanwhile said it would extend its strict anti-virus measures until January 18.

- US 'travesty' -

In the United States, where hospitals in some areas are under intense pressure as the death toll soars, President-elect Joe Biden slammed the outgoing administration's distribution of Covid-19 vaccine as a "travesty."

In Brazil, which has the second-highest death toll after the US, two vaccine makers -- China's Sinovac and AstraZeneca/Oxford -- applied for approval for their jabs.

Belgium meanwhile said it hopes to start inoculating its general population from June.

Iran stood out as a rare country turning away vaccine doses -- Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banned the import of American and British-produced vaccines, saying they were "completely untrustworthy".

In Sweden, which has controversially relied on mostly non-coercive measures, the parliament passed a law giving the government stronger new powers to fight the virus.

Neighbouring Denmark announced it would only allow flights into the country if every passenger had tested negative for Covid-19.

And there was relief in Spain, where a baby -- three-month-old Petru -- left the hospital after spending nearly all his short life fighting Covid-19.

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