Moderna vaccine set for imminent US approval, as Europe battles surge
China to start opening vaccination programme to general public
Moderna's coronavirus vaccine was set for imminent approval in the US on Thursday, as Covid death tolls climbed around the world, with Europe becoming the first region to pass 500,000 fatalities and Brazil notching more than 1,000 deaths in 24 hours.
The Moderna jab is now expected to become the second vaccine allowed in a Western country after a panel of US experts recommended emergency use approval -- advice that the country's Food and Drug Administration is likely to act on.
French President Emmanuel Macron meanwhile became the latest national leader to test positive for coronavirus, forcing several other European politicians into quarantine.
Europe is battling a winter surge that has placed it at the heart of the pandemic once again, with the disease biting harder in countries like Germany than it did during the first wave in March and April.
The European Union is under massive pressure to approve potential vaccines after Britain and the United States began rolling out a drug produced by Pfizer and BioNtech.
The bloc has promised to begin inoculations with the Pfizer drug before the end of the year. Late on Thursday said it would fast-track the Moderna vaccine, with approval now scheduled for January 6, a week earlier than previously planned.
As the US fights back against the virus, Macron's challenges are mounting -- he was tested after showing symptoms of the disease and is now isolating for seven days as his country faces its own upsurge in cases.
Macron's symptoms were said to include a fever, cough and fatigue.
- Holiday fears -
The French leader's positive test results group him with US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who were both treated in hospital after contracting the virus.
Other politicians who have had contact with him have also gone into isolation, including European Council chief Charles Michel, the prime ministers of Spain, Portugal and Luxembourg, and Macron's own prime minister Jean Castex.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo initially went into self-isolation but tested negative for the virus and will return to work on Friday, a spokesman said.
Several European countries are returning to lockdowns, curfews and other restrictions as fears grow of an explosion in cases after the Christmas holidays.
Germany, which began a new partial lockdown this week, reported a record 30,000 new infections on Thursday.
Denmark, France, Turkey and the Netherlands have all strengthened curbs recently and Bulgaria said on Thursday its restrictions would carry on until the end of January.
The EU is to start inoculations on December 27, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday.
China and Russia have been using locally developed vaccines.
In Brazil 1,092 new fatalities over the past 24 hours took the country's total deaths to almost 185,000 -- a number surpassed only by the United States.
Across Latin America, one of the worst-hit regions, some 30 million jobs have been lost during the pandemic, according to a report the International Labor Organization released on Thursday.
"Employment is in an intensive care unit, we need to take the necessary measures to get out of this," said ILO regional director Vinicius Pinheiro.
- Grim US data -
In the US, where 3,249 new deaths were recorded in the last 24 hours alone, emergency approval of the Moderna vaccine would pave the way for six million doses to potentially start shipping as soon as this weekend.
The US began rolling out the Pfizer jabs on Monday, hoping to have 20 million people immunised in December.
Senior officials have been pressed into service to convince the public that the vaccines are safe.
Meanwhile President-elect Joe Biden's incoming White House senior advisor, congressman Cedric Richmond, has contracted Covid-19, although Biden has so far tested negative.
With all eye on the coronavirus, more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths were recorded in the US in the year to May, the highest number ever in a 12-month period according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which emphasised that disruption to daily life had hit those with substance use problems.
Meanwhile, China plans to start opening its vaccination programme to members of the public in southwestern Sichuan province early next year, health officials said, despite the inoculations not yet receiving official approval.
At least one million people have already received a jab in China after vaccine candidates were approved for "emergency use", but so far they have been limited to priority groups such as state employees and international students.
A provincial health official told local media that vaccines will be provided to the general public in Sichuan after the Lunar New year holidays in February.
Officials said Thursday that 118,000 vaccine doses had arrived in the province so far, with plans to inoculate all high-risk groups by February 5 before rolling out the programme to the rest of the population.
They did not specify who developed the vaccines.
Sichuan is the first province to outline a timeline of its vaccination plans for the general public.
The coronavirus -- which first emerged in China late last year -- has largely been brought under control in the country, but there have been a series of domestic outbreaks.
Sichuan has been hit by a small cluster of Covid-19 cases in recent weeks, with one more virus infection reported Friday.
Biden aide tests positive
US President-elect Joe Biden's incoming White House senior advisor, congressman Cedric Richmond, has tested positive for Covid-19 after having open-air "interactions" with Biden, the transition team said Thursday.
Richmond traveled independently to the state of Georgia to campaign Tuesday with Biden for a pair of Democrats in tight runoff elections against incumbent Republican senators.
"Richmond's interactions with the president-elect happened in open air, were masked and totaled less than 15 consecutive minutes, the CDC's timeframe for close contact," transition spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield said in a statement, referring to the guidelines laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
She said the congressman, who will serve as director of the Office of Public Engagement in the White House, "was not in close contact, as defined by the CDC, with the president-elect" or with the Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.
Biden, 78, tested negative for Covid-19 on Thursday, his team said.
Overdose deaths in US rise during Covid-19
The Covid-19 pandemic has fuelled a rise in fatal drug overdoses in the United States, officials said Thursday, stressing that essential medical services have to remain accessible despite coronavirus disruptions.
More than 81,000 drug overdose deaths were recorded in the US in the year to May, the highest number ever in a 12-month period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It said the latest data showed an acceleration of overdose deaths since the pandemic took hold at the start of the year.
"The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard," said CDC director Robert Redfield.
"As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it's important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences."
More than 500,000 Americans have died of opioid overdoses -- both prescription and non-prescription -- since 1999.