Covid: Europe’s vaccine rollout ‘unacceptably slow’ – WHO

The World Health Organization (WHO) has criticised the rollout of coronavirus vaccines in Europe as being “unacceptably slow”.

Tents for a COVID-19 vaccination centre are installed inside the national stadium of France, Stade De France, in Saint Denis, near Paris, France, 31 March 2021
image captionEurope’s vaccination campaign has been hit by delays

It also says the situation in the region is more worrying than it has been for several months. 

Vaccination campaigns in much of Europe have been hit by delays and the number of infections is rising.

The EU has been criticised for the pace of its vaccination programme – only 16% of its population has received the jab, compared with 52% in the UK.

But the EU says the UK has had an unfair advantage in contracts it signed with vaccine manufacturers, some of whom are based within the EU.

“Vaccines present our best way out of this pandemic… However, the rollout of these vaccines is unacceptably slow” and is prolonging the pandemic in the wider Europe region, WHO director for Europe Hans Kluge said in a statement.

“We must speed up the process by ramping up manufacturing, reducing barriers to administering vaccines, and using every single vial we have in stock, now,” he added.

Last week saw increasing transmission of Covid-19 in the majority of countries in the WHO European region – which includes more than 50 countries and extends from Greenland to the far east of Russia – with 1.6 million new cases and close to 24,000 deaths, the WHO said. 

Only 10% of the nearly 900 million people in the region have had a single dose of coronavirus vaccine.

It remains the second most affected by the virus of all the world’s regions, with the total number of deaths fast approaching one million and the total number of cases about to surpass 45 million, it added.

It also warned of the risks of greater spread associated with increased mobility and number of gatherings over the forthcoming religious holidays of Passover, Easter and Ramadan. 

Some 27 countries of the more than 50 included in the WHO Europe region have implemented partial or full coronavirus lockdowns.

What else is happening around Europe?

  • After President Emmanuel Macron announced new restrictions in France on Wednesday evening, Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Thursday morning at the National Assembly: “The third wave is here.” He announced more detailed measures including a ban on alcohol in public spaces. France is set to begin a limited lockdown for four weeks from Saturday night, with travel restrictions extended from 19 areas to the entire country
  • Eurovision is to take place in Rotterdam’s Ahoy arena in May. The Dutch government wants to use the event as a test with 3,500 spectators allowed for all the rehearsals and the three big shows. There will be extensive safety measures for the 39 countries taking part
  • As infections surge in Belgium, a Brussels court has ruled that all the country’s Covid measures have to be lifted within 30 days because the legal basis is not sound enough. The court backed a lawsuit from the League for Human Rights. Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden has appealed against the ruling
  • Spain is seeing a new rise in cases with an average incidence of up to 152 cases per 100,000 over the last two weeks. Madrid and Navarre in the north are among the areas seeing a spike
  • Cases are also rising in Germany, with 24,300 in the past 24 hours. Almost 90% of infections involve the UK (Kent) variant
  • The Austrian capital, Vienna and two other provinces in the east have imposed an Easter lockdown to help ease the pressure on hospitals. Austrians have been told to stay at home, except for necessary activities such as food shopping, work, exercise and helping their families
  • A new German survey suggests only 25% of people have faith in the government’s vaccination strategy. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been limited to over-60s in Germany and 40% of those surveyed said they did not want it

Covid vaccinations: No reason to stop using AstraZeneca jab – WHO

Countries should not stop using AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine over fears it causes blood clots as there is no indication this is true, the World Health Organization says.

Bulgaria is the latest country to suspend use of the vaccine.

But a WHO spokeswoman told a briefing on Friday there was no link between the jab and developing a clot.

Margaret Harris said it was an “excellent vaccine” and should continue to be used.

Around 5 million Europeans have already received the AstraZeneca jab.

There have been about 30 cases in Europe of “thromboembolic events” – or developing blood clots – after the vaccine was administered. There were also reports that a 50-year-old man had died in Italy after developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

The WHO is investigating the reports, as it does any safety questions, Ms Harris said.

But no causal relationship had been established between the shot and the health problems reported, she said.

Bulgaria’s decision to pause its rollout follows similar steps by Denmark, Iceland and Norway as well as Thailand. Italy and Austria have stopped using certain batches of the drug as a precautionary measure.

“I order a halt in vaccinations with the AstraZeneca vaccine until the European Medicines Agency dismisses all doubts about its safety,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said.

The European Medicines Agency, the EU’s medicines regulator, said earlier there was no indication the jab was causing the blood clots, adding that its “benefits continue to outweigh its risks”.

AstraZeneca said the drug’s safety had been studied extensively in clinical trials.

Other countries, including the UK, Germany, Australia and Mexico, have said they are continuing their rollout.

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‘Safety first’

Analysis box by Michelle Roberts, health editor

While vast numbers of people are being vaccinated at pace around the world, some of them will still get sick with other things unrelated to the vaccine.

These pauses for the AstraZeneca vaccine are not because it is unsafe to give. It’s to allow time for experts to explore why a small number of people who were recently give the shot also developed blood clots.

When an illness occurs shortly after vaccination, it is right to question whether the shot might have contributed in any way.

There is no indication or evidence, however, that the vaccine was linked or responsible.

In the UK, more than 11 million people have already received at least one dose of the vaccine and there has been no sign of excess deaths or blood clots occurring. Europe’s drug regulator has also backed the vaccine, saying its benefits are clear. Covid can be deadly and vaccination saves lives. 

Germany’s Health Minister Jens Spahn said he disagreed with the countries suspending the vaccinations.

“From what we know so far, the benefit… is far greater than the risk,” he said.

The temporary suspensions come as a setback for a European vaccination campaign that has stuttered into life, partly due to delays in delivery of the doses.

In the latest upset, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz complained that the EU was not distributing coronavirus vaccines fairly among member states – according to population size, as agreed.

He said some countries were striking side deals with vaccine makers instead of leaving procurement to the European Commission.

The German health ministry acknowledged in January that Germany had signed a deal for 30 million doses with Pfizer BioNTech in September.

After cases declined in recent months, several European countries are now seeing a resurgence. France, Italy, Poland and Turkey have seen the highest numbers in recent weeks.

The whole of Italy is braced to enter the country’s strictest lockdown measures over the Easter weekend, 3 to 5 April.

Under rules set to be confirmed by the government, residents will only be allowed to leave home for work, health reasons, essential shopping or emergencies. All non-essential shops will be closed as will bars and restaurants. School lessons must be held online. 

The total number of deaths in Italy rose to 100,000 on Monday – the highest toll in Europe after the UK. Officials say infection rates are rising as new variants of the virus take hold. 

Chart showing the countries in Europe with the highest average number of cases in the last week. Updated 12 March.

Coronavirus: Bat scientists find new evidence

Scientists say coronaviruses related to Sars-CoV-2 may be circulating in bats across many parts of Asia.

A virus that is a close match to the Sars-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, has been discovered in bats at a wildlife sanctuary in eastern Thailand.

The researchers predict that related coronaviruses may be present in bats across many Asian nations and regions.

Their discovery extends the area in which related viruses have been found to a distance of 4,800km (2,983 miles).

The area includes Japan, China and Thailand, the researchers said in a report published in Nature Communications.

Writing in the journal, the researchers said the sampling site (Thailand only) and sampling size was limited, but they were confident that coronaviruses “with a high degree of genetic relatedness to Sars-CoV-2 are widely present in bats across many nations and regions in Asia”.

Past studies have suggested that Sars-CoV-2 emerged in an animal, most likely a bat, before spreading to humans.

The precise origins of the virus are unknown and have been investigated by a team commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO).

In the latest research, a team lead by Lin-Fa Wang of the University of Singapore detected a close relative of Sars-CoV-2 in horseshoe bats kept in an artificial cave at a wildlife sanctuary in Thailand.

The isolated virus, named RacCS203, is a close match to the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2 (exhibiting 91.5% similarity in their genomes). 

It is also closely related to another coronavirus – called RmYN02 – which is found in bats in Yunnan, China, and which shows 93.6% similarity to the genome of Sars-CoV-2.

The researchers, from Thailand, Singapore, China, Australia and the US, looked at antibodies in the bats and in a trafficked pangolin in southern Thailand.

They say the antibodies were able to neutralise the pandemic virus, which is further evidence that SARS-CoV-2-related coronaviruses are circulating in Southeast Asia. 

Prof Martin Hibberd of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who was not involved in the study, said the finding emphasised the broad distribution of the bats and viruses that may include the originator of the current outbreak. 

“Further work is required to understand how Sars-CoV-2 passed from animals to humans, with the recent WHO investigators in Wuhan showing that as of yet, these is no conclusive evidence of how this happened,” he said.

Covid vaccine: WHO warns of ‘catastrophic moral failure’

The world is on the brink of “catastrophic moral failure” because of the unequal distribution of Covid vaccines, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was not fair for younger, healthy people in richer nations to get the jab before vulnerable people in poorer states.

He said over 39 million vaccine doses had been given in 49 richer states. 

This compared with just 25 doses in one low-income country. 

So far, China, India, Russia, the UK and the US have all developed Covid vaccines with others being made by multinational teams – like the American-German Pfizer vaccine.

Almost all of these nations have prioritised distribution to their own populations.

Speaking at a WHO executive board session on Monday, Dr Tedros said: “I need to be blunt: the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.”

Dr Tedros said a “me-first” approach would be self-defeating because it would push up prices and encourage hoarding.

“Ultimately, these actions will only prolong the pandemic, the restrictions needed to contain it, and human and economic suffering,” he added.

And the WHO head called for a full commitment to the global vaccine-sharing scheme Covax, which is due to start rolling out next month.

“My challenge to all member states is to ensure that by the time World Health Day arrives on the 7 April, Covid-19 vaccines are being administered in every country, as a symbol of hope for overcoming both the pandemic and the inequalities that lie at the root of so many global health challenges,” Dr Tedros said.

So far, more than 180 countries have signed up to the Covax initiative, which is supported by the WHO and a group of international vaccine advocacy groups. Its aim is to unite countries into one bloc so they have more power to negotiate with drug companies.

Of those countries, 92 – all low or middle-income countries – they will have their vaccines paid for by a fund sponsored by donors. 

“We have secured two billion doses from five producers, with options of more than one billion more doses, and we aim to start deliveries in February,” Dr Tedros said.

What has the response been?

Reacting to Dr Tedros’ warning, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “The UK is the world’s biggest supporter, financial supporter, of the global programme to ensure access to vaccines in all countries in the world.”

Mr Hancock said the UK had “put the most financial support in these international efforts to ensure everybody has access to vaccines”.

The UK has donated $500m to the Covax programme.

More than four million people in the UK have received their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to government figures.

People in their 70s and the clinically extremely vulnerable in England are now among those being offered the jab.

Last month, The People’s Vaccine Alliance coalition of campaigning bodies said that rich countries were hoarding doses of Covid vaccines and people living in poor countries were set to miss out.

It said that nearly 70 lower-income countries would only be able to vaccinate one in 10 people.

Canada, in particular came under criticism, with the coalition saying the North American nation had ordered enough vaccine doses to protect each Canadian five times.

Covid: WHO team investigating virus origins denied entry to China

A World Health Organization (WHO) team due to investigate the origins of Covid-19 in the city of Wuhan has been denied entry to China.

Two members were already en route, with the WHO saying the problem was a lack of visa clearances.

However, China has challenged this, saying details of the visit, including dates, were still being arranged.

The long-awaited probe was agreed upon by Beijing after many months of negotiations with the WHO.

The virus was first detected in Wuhan in late 2019, with the initial outbreak linked to a market.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was “very disappointed” that China had not yet finalised the permissions for the team’s arrivals “given that two members had already begun their journeys and others were not able to travel at the last minute”.

“I have been assured that China is speeding up the internal procedure for the earliest possible deployment,” he told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday, explaining that he had been in contact with senior Chinese officials to stress “that the mission is a priority for WHO and the international team”.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told the BBC “there might be some misunderstanding” and “there’s no need to read too much into it”.

“Chinese authorities are in close co-operation with WHO but there has been some minor outbreaks in multiple places around the world and many countries and regions are busy in their work preventing the virus and we are also working on this,” she said.

“Still we are supporting international co-operation and advancing internal preparations. We are in communication with the WHO and as far as I know with dates and arrangements we are still in discussions.”https://emp.bbc.com/emp/SMPj/2.36.7/iframe.htmlmedia captionCovid-19: How everyday life has changed in Wuhan

The WHO has been working to send a 10-person team of international experts to China for months with the aim of probing the animal origin of the pandemic and exactly how the virus first crossed over to humans.

Last month it was announced that the investigation would begin in January 2021.

The two members of the international team that had already departed for China had set off early on Tuesday, said the WHO. According to Reuters news agency, WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan said one had turned back and one was in a third country.

Covid-19 was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in central Hubei province in late 2019. 

It was initially believed the virus originated in a market selling exotic animals for meat. It was suggested that this was where the virus made the leap from animals to humans.

But the origins of the virus remain deeply contested. Some experts now believe the market may not have been the origin, and that it was instead only amplified there. 

Some research has suggested that coronaviruses capable of infecting humans may have been circulating undetected in bats for decades. It is not known, however, what intermediate animal host transmitted the virus between bats and humans.

Covid: WHO in ‘close contact’ with UK over new variant

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said it is in “close contact” with UK officials over the emergence of a new variant of Covid-19.

The new variant is spreading more rapidly than the original version, but is not believed to be more deadly.

Large parts of south-east England, including London, are now under a new, stricter level of restrictions in a bid to curb the rapidly spreading virus.

The Netherlands said it was banning UK flights because of the new variant.

The ban comes into force on Sunday and will remain in place until 1 January at the latest, the Dutch government said.

The move comes after sampling of a case in the Netherlands earlier this month revealed the same strain of coronavirus as that found in the UK.

Pending “greater clarity” on the situation in the UK, it said “the risk of the new virus strain being introduced to the Netherlands should be minimised as much as possible”.

The Dutch government also said it would work with other European Union member states in the coming days to “explore the scope for further limiting the risk of the new strain of the virus being brought over from the UK”.

What do we know about the new variant?

The WHO tweeted that it was in contact with UK officials over the new variant.

It said the UK was sharing information from ongoing studies into the mutation, and that the WHO would update member states and the public “as we learn more about the characteristics of this virus variant [and] any implications”.

Although there is “considerable uncertainty”, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new variant may be up to 70% more transmissible than the old one.

But officials say there is no current evidence to suggest the new variant causes a higher mortality rate or that is affected any differently by vaccines and treatments.

“I think this is a situation which is going to make things a lot worse, but there are some really optimistic things if you look once we get the vaccine out, assuming the vaccine works against this, which at the moment is the working assumption,” said England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty.

What else is happening in Europe?

In the UK, the planned relaxation of Covid rules for Christmas has been scrapped for large parts of south-east England and cut to just Christmas Day for the rest of England, Scotland and Wales.

Italy has ordered a nationwide lockdown over much of the Christmas and New Year period.The country will be under “red-zone” restrictions over the public holidays, with non-essential shops, restaurants and bars closed, and Italians only allowed to travel for limited reasons.

The Netherlands and Germany have imposed lockdowns until January. In Germany, Christmas will see a slight easing, with one household allowed to host up to four close family members.

Austria is set to enter its third lockdown after Christmas. From 26 December, non-essential shops will be shut and movement outside homes restricted.

Sweden has recommended wearing face masks on public transport during the rush hour, reversing its earlier guidance. 

France‘s President Emmanuel Macron is in a “stable” condition after testing positive for coronavirus, his office said on Saturday. He is still experiencing symptoms, such as coughing and fatigue, but they are not preventing him from working, it said. 

Slovakia‘s Prime Minister Igor Matovic, who attended an EU summit with Mr Macron last week, said he had tested positive for coronavirus on Friday.

Several other European leaders who were also at the summit said they would self-isolate.

Fresh lockdowns in Europe are avoidable – WHO official

A woman walks his dog past a closed shop on sale during the second national lockdown as part of the measures to fight a second wave of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Nice, France, November 17, 2020

Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s Europe director, has said health systems on the continent are being overwhelmed, with one person dying every 17 seconds because of the pandemic. More than 29,000 deaths were recorded in the past week alone.

“Europe is once again the epicentre of the pandemic, together with the United States. There is light at the end of the tunnel but it will be a tough six months,” he told reporters on Thursday.

He also called for universal mask wearing, saying: 

“Mask use is by no means a panacea, and needs to be done in combination with other measures. However, if mask use reached 95%, lockdowns would not be needed.”

Who is Joe Biden?

Joe Biden has won the race to become the next US president, defeating Donald Trump after the election on Tuesday 3 November.

The BBC projects that Mr Biden has won the key state of Pennsylvania – that means the BBC expects he is very likely to win once all the votes are counted.

It takes him beyond the total of 270 electoral college votes needed to become President.