EU approves AstraZeneca jab as worries grow over virus strains

(FILES) This file illustration photo taken on November 17, 2020 shows vials with Covid-19 Vaccine stickers attached and syringes, with the logo of the University of Oxford and its partner British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. (Photo: AFP)

Amsterdam, Netherlands | The European Union on Friday approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine for use on all adults, as concerns grow around the world over the effectiveness of different jabs against new strains of Covid-19.



Brussels' announcement after a green light from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) marks the third vaccine approved for use in the EU, following the jabs made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.



The pharma giant's chief executive Pascal Soriot said approval "underscores the value of AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine", noting it is "easy to administer" -- with the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna alternatives requiring storage at ultra-low temperatures.



But even as she announced the approval, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen referred indirectly to a mounting row with AstraZeneca over deliveries of the shots.



"I expect the company to deliver the 400 million doses as agreed," von der Leyen tweeted.



- Vaccine row -



The British-Swedish company has admitted it will only be able to deliver a fraction of the doses promised to the EU in the short term due to production problems.



That has come as a huge blow to Europe's already struggling rollout, while setting the EU on a collision course with former member Britain as they jostle for AstraZeneca's limited supplies.



In a sign of the growing tensions, the EU on Friday released a redacted version of its contract with AstraZeneca, while announcing a mechanism that could allow it to deny the export of vaccines made on European soil.



World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom reiterated a warning against "vaccine nationalism", saying there is "real danger that the very tools that could help to end the pandemic -– vaccines –- may exacerbate" global inequality.



There is also controversy over the jab within the EU itself, with the EMA saying it was suitable for adults of all ages.



But Germany's vaccines panel on Friday upheld advice it should not be used on over-65s due to insufficient evidence that it works.



French President Emmanuel Macron also said the AstraZeneca shot appeared "quasi-ineffective" for that age group, while leaving any final decision on its use in the country to health authorities.



Beyond Europe, scientists are concerned that the coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa may elude some vaccines -- a potential stumbling block to the global strategy of taming Covid-19 through mass inoculation.



- 'Reaching the limit' -



With the global death toll close to 2.2 million, the fight against the pandemic has been further complicated by the emergence of more contagious variants first detected in Britain and Brazil as well as South Africa.



Mozambique's President Filipe Nyusi has warned that hospitals across southern Africa are "rapidly reaching the limit of their capacities", in part down to the new variant.



New data on Thursday and Friday showed average effectiveness of 89.3 and 66 percent for shots from American biotech firm Novavax and Johnson & Johnson.



But while Novavax's jab was highly effective against the British variant, both were less effective against the South African strain.



Johnson & Johnson is quickly expected to apply for a US emergency authorisation, and the EMA said it expected an application for use in the EU "shortly".



Pfizer and Moderna have said their vaccines are effective against the variants.



Citing concerns over the new strains, Germany on Friday said it would ban travel from countries where the variants are prevalent starting this weekend, while Canada announced hotel quarantine for all new arrivals.



"Now is just not the time to be flying," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said after airlines agreed to cancel flights to sunbelt destinations until the end of April.



In the EU, Hungary became the first member state to approve the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine, saying it had agreed to buy five million doses.



The Chinese "know the most" about Covid-19, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said, adding: "When I choose, I will want the Chinese vaccine."



- Lockdown again -



Until governments achieve widespread immunity through vaccinations, restrictions such as lockdowns remain among the few options available -- but they are deeply unpopular among many.



In France, Prime Minister Jean Castex's office told AFP he would announce new restrictions after days of speculation about a third lockdown.



Africa's largest film festival, the Pan-African Festival of Cinema and Television of Ouagadougou, known by its acronym in French of FESPACO, has also had to be postponed due to the pandemic, Burkina Faso's government said.



And in sport, the Oman Open golf tournament was postponed along with all other sporting events.



But there was good news for New Yorkers as Governor Andrew Cuomo said indoor dining could resume at 25 percent capacity from February 14, just in time for Valentine's Day.



In Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has shrugged off growing doubts over the fate of the Tokyo Olympics -- scheduled to start on July 23 -- insisting they will go ahead as "proof of mankind's victory over the virus and as a symbol of global unity".



© Agence France-Presse


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