Europe begins vaccine rollout, new variant spreads fear

Agence France-Presse . Paris | Published at 10:17am on December 27, 2020

A swath of European Union nations began vaccinating their most vulnerable groups on Sunday as a reputedly more contagious coronavirus variant spread internationally and the World Health Organisation warned that the current pandemic would not be the last.

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

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

However, in a video message ahead of the first International Day of Epidemic Preparedness on Sunday, World Health Organisation chief Tedros  Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that it was time to learn the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘History tells us that this will not be the last pandemic, and epidemics are a fact of life,’ said Tedros.

‘Any efforts to improve human health are doomed unless they address the critical interface between humans and animals, and the existential threat of climate change that’s making our earth less habitable,’ he added.

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 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 had also begun their vaccination campaigns.

‘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 per cent of Italians intend to get the jab, whereas scientists estimate herd immunity could only be reached if 75 to 80 per cent had it.

Flare-ups of the virus continued to force nations to toughen restrictions, with Austria beginning a third national lockdown on Saturday and millions waking to tougher restrictions in Britain.

France’s health minister Olivier Veran would not rule out a third lockdown if authorities decide it’s necessary to tamp down infections.

Jitters also remained over a new strain that had emerged in Britain and reached several other European countries such as France and Sweden, as well as Japan.

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.’

Canada reported on Saturday that it had detected two variant cases in the province of Ontario – a couple who had not travelled recently nor had high risk contacts with other people.

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

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 had 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 in the face of a new virus cluster.

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

Australian golf great Greg Norman became the latest well-known name to quarantine, saying on Saturday he was isolating at home after spending Christmas Day in the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms.

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

Switzerland’s health minister Alain Berset noted on Saturday his country had put the emphasis on personal responsibility.

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 authoritarian post-Soviet Turkmenistan, where the government said that no coronavirus cases had 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.’