Europe’s vaccine row worsens as WHO probe set to begin in China


Europe’s row with AstraZeneca worsened Thursday with a German recommendation against administering the firm’s COVID vaccine to older people, while WHO experts emerged from quarantine in China to begin a long-awaited probe into the pandemic’s origins.

With countries across the world again tightening restrictions after months of stop-and-start closures to curb virus infections, the economic toll so far was coming into focus with the United States seeing its sharpest contraction in growth since 1946.

UN data released Thursday also said the global tourism sector lost $1.3 trillion in revenue in 2020.

Given the world’s weariness over the pandemic that has now killed some 2.2 million people and infected more than 100 million, countries have been anxious to resolve bottlenecks in the distribution of jabs.

But the European Union’s efforts have been hit by an announcement from British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca that it could only supply a quarter of the doses it had promised for the first quarter of 2021.

The EU has demanded the drugs maker meets its commitments by supplying doses from its UK factories, but Britain insists it must receive all of the vaccines it ordered—and there are simply not enough to go round.

Adding to the row on Thursday was an announcement from Germany’s vaccine commission that it could not recommend AstraZeneca’s vaccine for those over 65 since there was not enough data to assess its efficacy.

AstraZeneca and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson immediately defended the jabs, which have already been widely used in Britain on older people.

With tempers flaring, Chancellor Angela Merkel called a high-level meeting for February 1 with her cabinet, vaccine manufacturers and leaders of Germany’s 16 states.

‘Proud to graduate’

The stakes were also high in Wuhan, China on Thursday as World Health Organization experts emerged from two weeks of quarantine and the United States and Beijing sparred over the probe.

“So proud to graduate from our 14 days… no-one went stir crazy & we’ve been v productive,” tweeted team member Peter Daszak after the investigators left their quarantine hotel wearing masks, peering out of their bus window at the gathered media.

China has sought to deflect blame by suggesting—without proof—that the virus emerged elsewhere.

“It’s imperative that we get to the bottom of the early days of the pandemic in China, and we’ve been supportive of an international investigation that we feel should be robust and clear,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday.

She also expressed concern about “misinformation” from “some sources in China”.

Beijing shot back Thursday, warning against “political interference” in the WHO mission.

Relatives of those who died in Wuhan have accused Chinese authorities of deleting their social media group and putting pressure on them to keep quiet.

India efforts

The virus has continued to hammer countries despite the onset of mass vaccination programmes that have seen more than 82 million doses injected, according to an AFP count compiled from national figures.

Pfizer, which developed its vaccine with German firm BioNTech, has also faced EU criticism for delays in deliveries but has now revised its production target for this year up from 1.3 billion doses to two billion.

Pfizer and BioNTech also said Thursday that their jab was effective against strains that have emerged in Britain and South Africa—days after another vaccine-maker, Moderna, said the same.

Officials in the United States on Thursday reported the first detected cases of the South African strain there.

In another boost to vaccine efforts, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his country will supply more locally made inoculations to other countries.

India—home to the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, the Serum Institute—has embarked on a form of vaccine diplomacy, gifting millions of doses to its neighbours.

Concerns have been deepening over rich nations dominating vaccine supply, and the WHO said Thursday that Africa can expect to see at least 30 percent of its population immunised by the end of this year.

Too soon to let up

After a tumultuous year in the United States, economic data showed the world’s largest economy shrunk by 3.5 percent in 2020.

The data underscores the job awaiting President Joe Biden, who took office just over a week ago promising to get the country back on track with a $1.9 trillion spending proposal.

While the world has long been ready to turn a corner on the pandemic, the WHO has warned Europeans it was too early to lift restrictions despite the rate of new infections slowing.

Denmark on Thursday prolonged a partial lockdown to mid-February, keeping schools and shops closed.

Infections have continued to re-emerge even in nations where they were previously brought under control.

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