Despite moves to reserve millions of doses of multiple vaccines, Europe has been slower to roll out its mass immunization campaign than Britain or the United States, where President Biden faced resistance Monday from Republican senators to his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan.
AstraZeneca plans to boost its manufacturing capacity in Europe and supply E.U. nations with 9 million additional vaccine doses before March, while Pfizer-BioNTech will deliver 75 million more doses in the second quarter.
The president of the bloc’s executive arm, Ursula von der Leyen, made the announcements on Twitter, calling the moves a “step forward on vaccines.” In a televised address, she said that E.U. authorities plan to inoculate 70 percent of European adults by the end of summer.
Even with the fresh supply, however, AstraZeneca’s new target of 40 million doses is just half of what the company originally aimed to provide. E.U. officials enacted over the weekend a new mechanism requiring drugmakers to seek authorization from member states before exporting vaccines abroad.
The European Commission’s senior trade official said the new system is “time-limited and targeted” and aimed at providing “greater clarity on vaccine production in the E.U.”
Blinken says China not transparent about virus
A fact-finding team led by the World Health Organization was in China’s Hubei region Monday to visit a disease-control center as part of its investigation into the origins of the outbreak. The mission is the result of months of negotiations between the WHO and Beijing, which has sought to suppress criticism of its handling of the virus when it first emerged in late 2019.
In an interview with NBC News, Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized China for its lack of transparency about how the outbreak unfolded.
“There’s no doubt that, especially when covid-19 first hit but even today, that China is falling far short of the mark,” Blinken said. “The focus we have to have is both getting a full understanding of and accountability for what happened.”
The WHO team has already visited local hospitals, as well as a seafood market in Hubei’s capital, Wuhan, where the first cluster of cases was detected. State news media also reported that the scientists were given a tour of a new museum dedicated to those who had battled the virus.
Despite vaccines, Israel’s infections rise
The vaccine shortages in Europe and elsewhere underscored the challenge of inoculating adult populations even as new, more virulent strains of the coronavirus continued to spread across the globe.
In Israel, where about a quarter of the population has been partially immunized, authorities Sunday extended a five-week national lockdown for another five days, in part due to a rise in coronavirus infections attributed to a highly transmissible variant first identified in Britain.
Other factors driving infections include repeated violations of lockdown measures by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, a key constituency of conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that makes up around 11 percent of Israel’s 9.2 million people. The minority, however, has recently accounted for about 40 percent of new coronavirus cases, according to the Associated Press.
On Sunday, thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews defied restrictions to attend the funerals of two prominent rabbis in Jerusalem, both of whom died after contracting the coronavirus. The mass processions in Jerusalem drew criticism from the prime minister’s political opponents.
France avoids stricter measures
French authorities last week opted out of declaring a new national lockdown to curb infections, citing high economic costs. Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said Monday that a national lockdown would cost France $18 billion a month, whereas current restrictions cost about $7.3 billion, Reuters reported.
A prominent infectious-disease expert, however, warned in a television interview Monday that the decision to avoid a new national lockdown was risky and that the covid-19 situation remained worrying. France has recorded about 3.2 million coronavirus infections and more than 76,000 deaths — and more than 27,000 people are currently hospitalized with the virus, according to official data. Just 1.4 million people in France have received the first dose of approved vaccines.
Instead, the government has ordered stricter border controls and better enforcement of a nightly curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Authorities on Sunday banned all but essential travel from outside the European Union, the state-run news network France24 reported, and will now require a negative PCR test from those arriving from within the bloc.
The channel quoted Prime Minister Jean Castex as saying that “any entry into France and any exit from our territory to or from a country outside the European Union will be prohibited.”
France’s approach stood in stark contrast to that of Australia, where about 2 million residents Monday began their first day of a strict, five-day lockdown after a single coronavirus case was discovered in the city of Perth. Australian authorities have largely kept the pandemic under control through stringent travel and quarantine rules, recording just under 29,000 total cases and fewer than 1,000 deaths.
Urgent testing for South Africa variant in Britain
British media reported that urgent door-to-door “surge testing” for a more contagious variant first detected in South Africa would begin in parts of England. Authorities will start by offering tests to residents of Surrey county outside London after two people tested positive for the variant despite having no travel links.
Households will be visited and asked to take a coronavirus test even if they are not experiencing symptoms of the virus.
Ruth Hutchinson, director of public health for Surrey, called the mass testing a “precautionary measure” that would hopefully slow the spread of the virus in the community.
Amid the news of the new infections, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told broadcasters that while infection rates were falling, vigilance was still necessary.
“The risk is that if you take your foot off the throat of the beast, if you allow things to get out of control and then you could, alas, see the disease spreading again,” he said.