EU begins vaccine rollout as new virus strain spreads

The truck transporting the first Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 disease vaccine delivery arrives at the UZ Leuven hospital, Leuven, on December 26, 2020 as begins a vaccination programme in EU countries. (Photo: AFP)
  • Agence France-Presse
  • December 27, 2020 1:45 AM

Paris, France | Some European countries started rolling out their first coronavirus vaccines on Saturday, even as a reputedly more contagious variant spread around the world, and the WHO warned that the current pandemic would not be the last.

In a video message ahead of the first International Day of Epidemic Preparedness on Sunday, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Saturday it was time to learn the lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic.

"For too long, the world has operated on a cycle of panic and neglect," he said.

"We throw money at an outbreak, and when it's over, we forget about it and do nothing to prevent the next one. This is dangerously short-sighted, and frankly difficult to understand," he said.

The approval and roll-out of vaccines has boosted hopes that 2021 could bring a respite from the pandemic, which has killed more than 1.7 million people since emerging in China late last year.

First doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived in EU countries including hard-hit Italy, Spain and France early on Saturday, ready for distribution to retirement homes and care staff.

"We'll get our freedom back, we'll be able to embrace again," Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said as he urged his countrymen to get the shot.

But polls show only 57 percent of Italians intend to get the jab whereas scientists estimate herd immunity can only be reached if 75 to 80 percent have it.

Vaccinations in all 27 European Union countries had been set to begin from Sunday, after regulators approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on December 21.

But some countries began vaccinating on Saturday: a 101-year-old woman in a care home became the first person in Germany to be inoculated, and the first jabs were also handed out in Hungary and Slovakia.

The three EU countries joined China, Russia and Britain, Canada, the United States, Switzerland, Serbia, Singapore and Saudi Arabia which have also begun their vaccination campaigns.

But jitters remained over a new strain that has emerged in Britain and reached several other European countries, as well as Japan.

Austria began a third national lockdown on Saturday and millions also woke to tougher restrictions in Britain.

- New variant - 

Swedish health authorities announced a "first isolated case" of the new virus, saying the sufferer had "travelled from the United Kingdom" but insisted the risk of spreading was low.

On Friday, French officials had said a Frenchman living in Britain had tested positive after arriving from London, adding that he was not showing symptoms and was isolating.

Four cases were confirmed in Madrid on Saturday, though the patients were not seriously ill, according to the Madrid regional government's deputy health chief Antonio Zapatero, who said "there is no need for alarm".

The new strain, which experts fear is more contagious, prompted more than 50 countries to impose travel restrictions on the UK.

Thousands of trucks backed up in southern England, but the bottleneck eased after France lifted a 48-hour entry ban for drivers with a negative coronavirus test.

South Africa has detected a virus mutation in some infected people, but on Friday denied British claims that its strain was more infectious or dangerous than the one originating in the UK.

- No Sydney sales rush -

In Asia, China's communist leadership issued a statement hailing the "extremely extraordinary glory" of its handling of the virus, state news agency Xinhua reported.

Japanese capital Tokyo reported a record 949 new daily cases while Thailand has seen a new outbreak linked to a seafood market near Bangkok infect almost 1,500 people.

In Australia, there was little sign of the usual rush to the Boxing Day sales in Sydney, with residents largely heeding the state premier's request they stay home faced with a new virus cluster. 

"Even when we entered the store there were less than 10 people," shopper Lia Gunawan told The Sydney Morning Herald.

- Licorice cure claim -

Across the world, people are still being urged to respect social distancing guidelines.

"Vaccines are offering the world a way out of this tragedy. But it will take time for the whole world to be vaccinated," WHO chief Tedros said on Friday.

Switzerland's Health Minister Alain Berset noted Saturday his country had put the emphasis on personal responsability. But he admitted that had not worked and that the government blundered in easing restrictions too far, resulting in some of Europe's fiercest infection rates during the pandemic's second wave.

In the Vatican, Pope Francis  pleaded for "vaccines for all" in his traditional Christmas message on Friday, urging leaders from politics and beyond to find a solution "especially the most vulnerable and most in need".

In authoritarian post-Soviet Turkmenistan, where the government says no coronavirus cases have been detected, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov claimed that licorice root could cure Covid-19.

Without citing any scientific evidence, former dentist Berdymukhamedov claimed that "licorice stops the coronavirus from developing".

© Agence France-Presse

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