US, EU push forward vaccine approval as fears of Xmas infections grow

By: AFP      Published: 10:14 PM, 15 Dec, 2020
US, EU push forward vaccine approval as fears of Xmas infections grow

The United States and the European Union on Tuesday pushed forward approval of two leading Covid-19 candidate vaccines, as fears grew of a fresh wave of infections over Christmas.

Two leading British medical journals meanwhile urged London to scrap plans easing restrictions for the holiday season and the Netherlands imposed its tightest lockdown since the pandemic emerged.

The novel coronavirus has claimed over 1.6 million lives and more than 72 million cases have been registered since it emerged in China last December.

The US Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday issued an upbeat briefing document about the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine ahead of a meeting by experts on whether to grant it emergency approval.

The FDA said there were "no specific safety concerns identified that would preclude issuance of an EUA (emergency use authorisation)" and confirmed an overall efficacy of 94.1 percent.

The upbeat assessment came a day after a mass vaccination drive in the United States, the world's worst-affected country.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said Berlin wanted the EU to approve the BioNTech/Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine "before Christmas" as calls grew for the bloc's health regulator to speed up its decision process.

The Amsterdam-based European Medicines Agency (EMA) had previously planned to hold a special meeting by December 29 to discuss granting conditional approval for the jab but on Tuesday said it would be brought forward to December 21.

The EU is behind a growing number of nations that have already granted emergency approval. Britain, Canada and the United States have already started vaccinating their citizens.

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) and the Health Service Journal (HSJ) on Tuesday warned that British proposals to allow three households to mix indoors for five days could lead to the state-run National Health Service being overwhelmed.

"We believe the government is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives," the BMJ and HSJ said in their second joint editorial in more than a century.

"Rather than lifting restrictions over Christmas as currently planned, the UK should follow the more cautious examples of Germany, Italy and the Netherlands," they said.

The stark warning came after the government announced that London and parts of three surrounding counties will from Wednesday join swathes of central and northern England under the toughest restrictions to try to cut spiralling infection rates.

Pubs, bars, restaurants and other hospitality sites will close, apart from takeaways, as will theatres and other entertainment venues. Members of different households cannot mix indoors.

Beginning of the end'?

More than 300,000 people have died in the United States, where New York nurse Sandra Lindsay became the first person to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, six days after Britain launched the West's vaccine campaign against Covid-19.

"I hope this marks the beginning of the end of the very painful time in our history," Lindsay, a critical care nurse, said.

The Netherlands on Tuesday entered its strictest lockdown since the pandemic began, while Norway said it could extend virus curbs until the latter half of January and Turkey announced it would go into a four-day lockdown over the New Year holidays.

From Tuesday, people in France will no longer need to fill out forms justifying their reason for leaving home, but will instead be subject to a new 8:00 pm-6:00 am curfew.

More mass vaccinations

An initial 2.9 million doses are set to be delivered to 636 sites around the United States by Wednesday, with officials saying 20 million Americans could receive the two-shot regimen by year end, and 100 million by March.

Trials have shown the vaccine to be 95 percent effective.

The Washington National Cathedral is due to ring its bells 300 times Tuesday in memory of the 300,000 people who have lost their lives to coronavirus in the United States.

The United Arab Emirates on Monday also began administering shots by Chinese drugs giant Sinopharm in Abu Dhabi.

Saudi Arabia announced a three-phase Covid-19 vaccination programme and Jordan approved the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

New strain

Britain's health minister Matt Hancock has said scientists had identified a "new variant" of the virus in the south of England that may be causing infections to spread faster.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said schools and all non-essential shops would shut from Tuesday for five weeks over Christmas. Germany will also enter a partial lockdown Wednesday with non-essential shops and schools closed.

Brazil's health regulator meanwhile accused China of not being transparent in efforts to win emergency approval for its Covid-19 vaccine CoronaVac, currently in the final phase of trials.

Anvisa warned against the "influence of issues related to geopolitics" in promoting vaccines.

CoronaVac, produced by the Chinese private laboratory Sinovac in collaboration with the Butantan Institute of Sao Paulo, has been the subject of heated political debate in Brazil.