Brussels, 19 April: German Federal Government takes emergency powers
The German Federal Government has taken on emergency powers to curb the spread of coronavirus, DW reported on Monday. The ruling coalition seeks to change planned curfew rules and other restrictions German lawmakers are scheduled to discus on Wednesday. The ruling parties propose starting nighttime curfews at 10 p.m., an hour later than originally planned, as part of a drive on their part to ease existing federal rules overall. This includes allowing citizens to jog or walk alone until midnight, hitherto not permitted. Federal Minister of Health Jens Spahn called on local government units to exercise their own authority until the federal authorities prepare their plan, stressing “no one needs to wait for the law”. If the lower house adopts proposed rules on Wednesday and the upper house then greenlights the proposal, the new regulations should remain in effect until 30 June.
Brussels, 20 April: Austria follows through with EU vaccine-sharing plan
Austria announced today that it is arranging for the delivery of 651,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by US Pfizer pharmaceuticals and the German BioNTech biotechnology company to Western Balkan countries, DW reports. “With this initiative we are showing that we are not leaving the region behind”, Austria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Schallenberg, declared, noting “these are vaccine doses that the EU explicitly secured from the beginning for the purpose of passing them on to partners”. Deliveries are to be made to Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia from May, he said. BiH will receive 214,000 doses, Albania 145,000 and North Macedonia 119,000. The European Commission outlined the vaccine-sharing plan in January, with Austria undertaking to coordinate EU distribution efforts in the Western Balkans and indicating that initial deliveries could be followed by more.
Brussels, 19 April: Australia, New Zealand lift mutual travel restrictions
Australia and New Zealand have agreed to lift mutual travel restrictions after more than one year, DW reported on Monday. The two countries imposed pandemic control travel restrictions in March last year that required travellers to quarantine for two weeks upon entry. Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern noted “it is truly exciting to start quarantine-free travel with Australia”. Whether “returning family, friends or holidaymakers, New Zealand says welcome and enjoy yourself”, she added. Her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison called the move beneficial for both countries, noting it should boost economic growth. The two PMs announced they hoped to include more countries in the unrestricted travel arrangement once they are seen as safe. However, they also cautioned that restrictions could be re-imposed in the event of new outbreaks and so advised that the latest travel arrangement would be under “constant review”. Australia lifted travel restrictions before New Zealand, which delayed the move over sporadic outbreaks in Australia.
Brussels, 19 April: Spain to delay second shot to boost immunisation
Spain’s Ministry of Health is considering the possibility of delaying second COVID-19 shots to people under the age of 80 in a bid to increase the number of people who receive at least one dose, according to the Monday edition of the newspaper El Mundo, Reuters reports According to the plan, Spain was to administer the second shot of vaccines developed by US Pfizer and Moderna pharmaceuticals eight weeks after the first shot. If the plan is approved, Spain would scrap the strategy focused on administering the full course to vulnerable groups as quickly as possible. Israel and the UK have opted to spread out the shots to achieve herd immunity as soon as possible and are reporting reporting positive results for this approach. According to Friday’s data, Spain has administered two shots to about 7% of its population, with approximately 19% receiving at least one. The country still hopes to fully inoculate 50% of the population by late July. Minister of Health Carolina Darias announced on Monday that Spain should receive 1.7 million Pfizer vaccine doses at the start of May.
Brussels, 15 April: Portugal continues to ease restrictions
Prime Minister of Portugal António Costa announced on Thursday that the country is to continue easing coronavirus pandemic restrictions, Reuters reports. However, while most regions are to enter the third phase of easing restrictions next week, municipalities with high transmission rates will remain subject to more severe restrictions. “These sets of measures are neither prizes nor punishments”, Costa said, noting “hey are public health measures for the safety of the population”. After a lockdown in January, Portugal started easing restrictions in March. Cinemas, high schools, universities, indoor restaurant areas and shopping malls are to re-open on Monday in the majority of municipalities. “This is really a fight against the pandemic we have to do together”, Costa stressed. “The effort cannot be wasted until the vaccination process is effective”, he declared.
Brussels, 16 April: Sweden eases restrictions for those who have been vaccinated
The Public Health Agency of Sweden (FoHM) announced today that restrictions for people who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 are to be eased, Reuters reports. Approximately 20% of Swedes have received at least one vaccine shot thus far. FoHM Director-General Johan Carlson stated “now it is okay for a vaccinated grandmother to hug her grandchildren”. However, he cautioned that being vaccinated does not mean people are allowed to live their lives as normal. Authorities stressed that infection rates in Sweden are the second-highest in Europe, so restrictions cannot be eased for non-vaccinated people. According to Sweden’s Minister of Health and Social Affairs, Lena Hallengren, “so far, not enough people have been vaccinated so that it makes a difference to the pressure on the health system or on the spread of the infection in general”. Sweden’s vaccine coordinator Richard Bergström, citing the fact that the country is negotiating the purchase of Russian Sputnik V vaccines, noted that several EU countries aim “to have a contract in place when – or if – the vaccine is approved”.
Brussels, 14 April: Denmark stops administering AstraZeneca vaccine
Denmark has decided to stop administering the COVID-19 vaccine developed by British-Swedish AstraZeneca pharmaceuticals because of its possible link to blood clots, Reuters reports. Danish health authorities expect the move to cause delays but had hoped its vaccination campaign could be wrapped up by early August once the country starts administering the vaccine developed by US Johnson & Johnson (J&J) pharmaceuticals. However, the rollout of the J&J vaccine has been delayed in Europe due to similar clotting fears and Denmark has suspended its use. The J&J vaccine accounts for approximately one third of Denmark’s contracted supply. Søren Brostrøm, the head of the Danish Health Authority, stated that investigations into the AstraZeneca vaccine “showed real and serious side-effects”. The authorities had therefore opted “to continue the vaccination programme for all target groups without this vaccine”. He noted that studies based on data from Denmark and Norway show one in 40,000 people who got the AstraZeneca vaccine could suffer from the rare blood clot complication.
Brussels, 14 April: Switzerland to ease restrictions next week
Switzerland has announced plans to ease restrictions imposed to control the coronavirus pandemic next week, Reuters reported on Wednesday. Swiss authorities are to allow restaurants to re-open outdoor areas and spectators to attend sports events. Concert venues, theatres and cinemas will be allowed to re-open subject to restrictions that include mandatory face masks and social distancing. The Swiss government decided to start lifting restrictions despite negative epidemiological trends. Alain Berset, head of the Federal Department of Home Affairs, cited favourable weather conditions and the fact that most vulnerable groups have been vaccinated as reasons. “We think taking the risk is justifiable”, he said, noting too that many people have had enough of restrictions, claiming that 14 months is plenty. “What we are trying to do is re-open in a prudent way, so as not to lose control and plan our next steps”, Berset advised.
Brussels, 14 April: Czech researchers warn obese people are hit harder by COVID-19
Ladislav Dušek, head of the Institute of Health Information and Statistics of the Czech Republic, has warned of the correlation between obesity and COVID-19 hospitalisations, DW reports. “Unfortunately, the Czech Republic is one of the record holders with regard to obesity in Europe”, he noted, adding that 80% of the country’s hospitalised COVID-19 patients are obese or overweight. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation has pointed out that “the correlation between obesity and mortality rates from COVID-19 is clear and compelling”. The World Obesity Federation cited research from the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, noting that there is a clear link between obesity and the likelihood of dying from COVID-19. Obesity researcher Jozef Čupka stated that “even the risk of getting sick with COVID-19 in the first place increases a lot with obesity”. Overweight people are more likely to require hospitalisation if they fall ill, he said. They have a greater chance of needing intensive care if hospitalised and they face a higher risk of death if admitted to intensive care. Commenting on restrictions imposed to contain the pandemic, Čupka noted that they also contribute to the problem insofar as indoors exercise facilities have been shut down, which, along with restrictions on movement, have contributed to a rise in alcohol consumption and caused weight gain increases.
Brussels, 13 April: Norway plans to ease restrictions this week
Prime Minister of Norway Erna Solberg announced plans to lift some coronavirus pandemic restrictions this week, Reuters reported on Tuesday. While Norway boasts some of the lowest infection rates in Europe, the country imposed severe restrictions last month in response to the growing number of hospitalisations. “The infection numbers are now down”, Solberg said, an indication that “the measures look to have had an effect”. She announced that people would be allowed to gather in homes in groups larger than three from Friday this week and that restaurants will be allowed to serve alcoholic drinks if certain conditions are met. Groups of up to 200 will be allowed to attend outdoor events, twice as many as the cap for indoor events.
Brussels, 13 April: UK variant not as severe as claimed
According to a study published in The Lancet, the weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal, the UK variant of coronavirus does not cause a more severe version of COVID-19 as claimed, Reuters reports. The study, which looked at 496 patient cases in Britain, showed no difference in clinical outcomes of patients infected with the UK variant compared to those infected with other strains. “Our data, within the context and limitations of a real-world study, provide initial reassurance that severity in hospitalised patients with B.1.1.7 is not markedly different from severity in those without”, the researchers noted. The study did confirm claims that the UK variant is more transmissible. According to a separate study, also published in The Lancet, vaccines should be effective against the British variant since reinfection rates are comparable to those of other strains.
Brussels, 13 April: Britain on path to vaccinate all adults by end July
The UK has offered COVID-19 vaccination to people over age 50 and is on track to vaccinate all adults by August, Reuters reports. Britain has implemented one of the fastest vaccination campaigns, second only to Israel with regard to the proportion of people who received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced “we will now move forward with completing essential second doses and making progress towards our target of offering all adults a vaccine by the end of July”. The UK started administering vaccines developed by US Moderna pharmaceuticals on Tuesday, making it the third vaccine used in Britain. Moderna’s vaccine is based on new mRNA technology similar to that developed by its US counterpart Pfizer, but it has the advantage of not having to be kept at extremely low temperatures. The UK’s successful vaccination campaign helped the country to re-open all shops and other parts of the economy on Monday. The National Health Service has now invited people over age 45 to book their vaccination appointments.
Brussels, 11 April: US stresses need to determine origin of SARS-CoV-2
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed the importance of finding the origin of SARS-CoV-2 on Sunday, criticising Chinese authorities for making the investigation more difficult and the pandemic worse than it had to be, Reuters reported. He pointed out that China had refused to grant access to data to international experts, which meant that the pandemic “got out of hand faster and with, I think, much more egregious results than it might otherwise”. Last month, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that the Chinese authorities had withheld data from the WHO-lead investigation team and that this made it all the more important that a further investigation take place. After last month’s release of the joint China-WHO report on the origin of the virus, Western countries called on Beijing to provide full access to relevant data to independent experts. “We need to do that precisely so we fully understand what happened, in order to have the best shot possible at preventing it from happening again,” Blinken maintained, saying “that’s why we need to get to the bottom of this.”
Brussels, 10 April: Moscow hides COVID-19 death toll
Records of the Russian Federal State Statistics Service are not in line with Moscow’s reports on the COVID-19 death toll, according to New York Times reporting on Saturday. Statistics show some 362,000 excess deaths in Russia in the period between April and December last year, while Moscow reported about 57,000 COVID-19 deaths. Not all excess deaths are from COVID-19, but the discrepancy in Russia is significantly higher compared to other countries. In the observed period, Russia saw 28% more deaths than normal, which presents a greater increase compared to most Western countries. Russia had imposed a two-month lockdown last spring and lifted most restrictions last summer. Polls suggest most Russians do not trust Moscow’s COVID-19 reports, with a poll in February showing 60% of respondents were not planning to take the Sputnik V vaccine.
Brussels, 8 April: Slovakia and Russia clash over Sputnik V
Slovakia’s State Institute for Drug Control (SÚKL) noted on Thursday that the doses of Russian Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccines it received are different from those scrutinised by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and international scientists, Reuters reported. The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which promotes Sputnik V on foreign markets, denied the claims and described them as “fake news”. It called on Slovakia to send samples to the EMA for testing and return the shipment to Russia. “All Sputnik V batches are of the same quality and undergo rigorous quality control at the Gamaleya Institute”, RDIF insisted. SÚKL warned about gaps in the data on pre-clinical testing, stressing that “a substantial part of the data, approximately 80%, was not supplied even after repeated requests”. Slovakia’s Finance Minister, Igor Matovič, the former Prime Minister who stepped down over lack of transparency in the procurement of Russian vaccines, noted that Slovakia had ordered 2 million shots of Sputnik V.
Brussels, 8 April: UK supplies 717,000 AstraZeneca shots to Australia
The UK has supplied Australia with 717,000 COVID-19 vaccine shots developed by British-Swedish AstraZeneca, according to the Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday, DW reports. Australia previously had called on the EU to release vaccine shipments after the bloc halted the export of AstraZeneca shots because the company was in violation of contractual obligations. According to the Herald’s report, a British official had stressed that the shipments to Australia did not come at the expense of the UK’s inoculation campaign. Valdis Dombrovskis, Executive Vice President of the EC for an Economy that Works for People, noted last month that the EU would grant or deny export approval based on vaccination rate, the epidemiological situation and access to shots in destination countries. The bloc first introduced export restrictions in January this year in an effort to sort out its botched vaccination campaign. As part of the bloc’s spat with Britain, EU Council President Charles Michel accused the UK of blocking vaccine exports, which the UK denied. The Sydney Morning Herald noted that the UK had not imposed restrictions, given that it had delivered vaccines to Australia.
Brussels, 8 April: ECHR says compulsory vaccination may be legal
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled on the issue of compulsory vaccination, concluding that such a move would not be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, DW reported on Thursday. The ruling comes in response to a complaint by Czech families over mandatory vaccination of children. The ECHR described the measures as likely “necessary in a democratic society” and added that the decision of the Czech authorities had been in the “best interests” of children. The ruling that the policy does not violate rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human rights, while setting a precedent, does not mean EU member states will force their citizens to get vaccinated. According to Czech regulations, children must be inoculated against nine diseases. The families bringing the case before the ECHR had been protesting being fined and denied access to kindergarten nurseries.
Brussels, 7 April: Scientists call for new investigation into origin of SARS-CoV-2
A group of 24 researchers and scientists from Australia, Europe, Japan and the US have called for a new investigation into the origin of SARS-CoV-2, stressing that the probe conducted jointly by China and the World Health Organisation (WHO) did not provide credible answers, Reuters reported on Wednesday. The scientists claimed that the investigation had been tainted by politics, that critical samples and records “remain inaccessible” and that the investigators based their conclusions on unpublished research from China. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted last week that China withheld data. Liang Wannian, a senior official at the National Health Commission of China, claimed this was not true. Liang indicated that further joint probes in China were not possible and suggested the investigation should focus on other countries. Jamie Metzl of the US Atlantic Council think tank called on China to share the data that can disprove the lab leak hypothesis.
Brussels, 6 April: EMA sends mixed messages about AstraZeneca shot
Marco Cavaleri, head of Health Threats and Vaccines Strategy at the European Medicines Agency (EMA), on Tuesday said he believed that a causal link between the COVID-19 vaccine developed by British-Swedish AstraZeneca pharmaceuticals and blood clots had been established, according to The Guardian. Later that day, the EMA denied it had found a causal link and stressed that its review is still underway. While several EU member states have suspended the use of the shot, the EMA, the World Health Organisation and the British Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency have maintained that the vaccine should continue to be used since the benefits outweigh the risks by far. Since then, most countries have resumed vaccinations with the shot, but several have limited its use to people over 55, 60 or 65, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.
Brussels, 6 April: Protesters want BiH government to resign over vaccination drive
Hundreds of protesters called for the resignations of government officials on Tuesday in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, over the government’s failure to launch a vaccination campaign, Reuters reported. Police estimated the protest turnout to be approximately 500, plus another 300 in the accompanying motorcade. Bosnian authorities have ordered 1.2 million shots through the COVAX programme. The first shipment of 50,000 shots arrived last week. China, Serbia and Turkey have donated roughly 100,000 shots, while the EU agreed to provide an additional 900,000 doses, which have yet to arrive. MP Maja Gasal-Vražalica, protest co-organiser, stressed “our incapable government is gambling with our lives every day of the coronavirus pandemic, and we are gambling too if we remain silent”. Protesters called on central and regional government officials to step down and demanded the introduction of mandatory negative COVID-19 tests for people entering the country.
Brussels, 6 April: Gibraltar completes vaccination campaign, scraps restrictions
Gibraltar has completed its COVID-19 vaccination campaign and has eased restrictions imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus, DW reported on Tuesday. Authorities have scrapped curfews and restrictions imposed on bars and restaurants, to the relief of locals. Last week, British Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, noted that “Gibraltar became the first nation in the world to complete its entire adult vaccination programme”. Samantha Sacramento, Minister for the Health Authority, Justice, Multiculturalism, Equality and Community Affairs, pointed out that Gibraltar is gradually returning to normal, but stressed “I think psychologically, we’ve got some catching up to do.” Besides almost all 34,000 Gibraltarians, most Spanish commuters who work in Gibraltar have been vaccinated. In contrast, only 6% or so of Spaniards have been vaccinated, the only groups fully vaccinated to date including the elderly, teachers and healthcare workers.
Brussels, 6 April: Number of foreign tourists in Spain down 93.6% in February
The number of foreign tourists who visited Spain in February dropped 93.6% on the annual level as a result of pandemic control restrictions, Reuters reported on Tuesday. The number of foreign tourists that visited the country last year dropped approximately 80% year-on-year, making the February slump even more devastating since tourism accounts for approximately 10% of Spain’s GDP. Revenues from international tourism plunged 93.3% annually in February, which has put many businesses in the sector in jeopardy. Visitors from France accounted for approximately 25% of foreign tourists in February, followed by Germany. Many French tourists decided to visit Spain to get away from lockdowns in France, drawn by open bars and restaurants. The total number of foreign tourists visiting Spain in February stood at 284,311, down approximately 34.6% compared to January.
Brussels, 1 April: WHO Europe criticises EU’s vaccination campaign
Hans Kluge, World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Director for Europe, criticised the EU’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign as “unacceptably slow” on Thursday, Reuters reports. He was concerned that slow rollouts could prolong the coronavirus pandemic, noting that roughly 10% of people in Europe have received the first vaccine shot, with approximately 4% fully vaccinated. “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”, Kluge urged. The EU was slower than the UK and the US when it came to ordering vaccines last year as well as when it came to approving their use. Kluge pointed out that infections are rising in Europe in all age groups except among those over 80, a sign that the vaccines administered to the elderly are working. It was a matter of concern that Europe’s slow vaccination campaign was leaving younger people vulnerable, making it all the more important to speed up the rollout.
Brussels, 31 March: Italy makes vaccination mandatory for health workers
Italy’s government announced on Wednesday that COVID-19 vaccination is mandatory for all health workers, Reuters reports. “The aim of the measure is to protect as much as possible both medical and paramedical staff and those who are in environments that may be more exposed to the risk of infection”, a government statement stressed. Critics have pointed out that forcing some groups of workers to get vaccinated could infringe personal freedoms. According to Wednesday’s decree, health workers who refuse the vaccine can be suspended for up to one year without pay. The move comes against a backdrop of rising infection numbers in the last month or so and tightened restrictions imposed to cope with the surge. Italy has administered roughly 10 million shots thus far. Approximately 3.1 million people have received two shots.
Brussels, 31 March: France, Germany, Russia discuss global security, Sputnik V
French President Emmanuel Macron, his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed global security and the Russian-developed Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine in a conference call on Tuesday, DW reports. After the call, the Kremlin noted that the three discussed joint production of Sputnik V, which the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is in the process of approving for use in the EU. EMA experts are to visit Russia in April to examine the production process and results of clinical trials. Merkel has previously noted she favours using Sputnik V in Germany if the EMA approves it. Production of the vaccine in the EU is to start in Italy in July and in Germany in the summer. On issues of global security, the three expressed their support for the Iranian nuclear deal.
Brussels, 30 March: Spain makes face masks mandatory
Spain has made face masks mandatory in all public places and outdoors from Wednesday on, according to RFI. Masks have been mandatory in Spain since May last year, but only where it is not possible to maintain a social distance of at least two metres. Spain’s Finance Minister and government spokesperson María Jesús Montero said it was important that citizens understand “that we have not reached a relaxation phase, and we cannot in any way afford to be reckless”. People with medical conditions and respiratory problems as well as those exercising will be exempt from the mandatory mask rule. While the government plans to vaccinate 70% of the population by the end of the summer, to date, only some 2.6 million in a populaton of roughly 47 million have been vaccinated. The government announced on Tuesday that it would challenge the Galicia region’s law that makes vaccination against COVID-19 and other diseases mandatory. According to the local law passed in February, people who refuse to get vaccinated can be fined up to 3,000 euro. Montero pointed out the law infringes on fundamental rights and that the issue is a national, not a local, matter.
Brussels, 30 March: UK to vaccinate all adults before sharing surplus vaccines
The UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Kwasi Kwarteng has announced Britain will vaccinate all adults before sharing surplus COVID-19 shots with other countries, Reuters reports. So far, the UK has administered the first vaccine shot to more than 30 million adults, making its vaccination campaign the most successful in Europe. The UK’s plan to vaccinate all adults by the end of July could be foiled by the supply spat with the EU, which has experienced all kinds of setbacks to its vaccination campaign. “I think our focus has to be to try and keep Britain safe. We want to work cooperatively as well with other countries but the main priority is to get the vaccine rollout”, Kwarteng said. While the UK is prepared to share any surplus shots, he stressed that with many citizens yet to be vaccinated, Britain does not have any surplus jabs at the moment.
Brussels, 29 March: WHO investigation into origin of COVID-19 inconclusive
The investigation conducted jointly by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and China into the origin of COVID-19 as proved to be inconclusive, Reuters reported on Monday. While the summary of the report which is to be released this week notes that the lab leak hypothesis was “extremely unlikely”, WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus pointed out “all hypotheses are on the table and warrant complete and further studies”. According to the report summary, the three laboratories in Wuhan that work with coronaviruses are “well-managed” and there were no eports of infections among staff. Furthermore, according to the summary, subsequent screenings for antibodies found no traces of infections among lab staff. A senior US official has called for further science-based studies of the situation. The WHO-China investigation came under fire by international scientists for its lack of independence and constricted access to critical information, among other critical issues.
Brussels, 29 March: France braces for third wave of infections
Bruno Le Maire, France’s Minister of the Economy, Finance and Recovery, declared “all options are on the table”, when commenting on the country’s worsening negative epidemiological trends on Monday, Reuters reports. In his view, while France should refrain from imposing new pandemic restrictions for as long as possible, it was not in the country’s interests right now to “signal that we would reopen some businesses while the situation deteriorates”. Beauty salons, clothes shops and furniture stores remain closed, having been deemed non-essential by the authorities, a decision that has been severely criticised by their proprietors. Last week, President Emmanuel Macron defended the decision to keep schools open and not to impose a new lockdown, but pointed out that the authorities will likely have to impose more restrictions in order to bring the pandemic under control.
Brussels, 28 March: Merkel wants tighter restrictions in place
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel called on German states on Sunday to impose tighter restrictions to control the coronavirus pandemic, Reuters reported. She pointed out that curfews could be imposed and regretted that some states were not halting gradual reopening plans. “We have our emergency brake… unfortunately, it is not respected everywhere”, she complained, adding that she hoped “there might be some reflection on this”. Merkel declared that nationwide restrictions would be imposed should local authorities fail to impose more restrictions in the “very foreseeable future”. Germany’s botched vaccination campaign is being hampered by supply constraints, with just over 10% of the population having received a first vaccine shot by Sunday. “We need to do more”, Merkel stressed, warning of additional measures in the offing. “We have the possibilities of restrictions on going out, further contact restrictions, further mask wearing…” She went on to caution that in her view the restrictions already in place were insufficient to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Brussels, 25 March: Pfizer criticises EU plan to restrict exports
Sabine Bruckner, US Pfizer pharmaceuticals’ country manager for Switzerland, warned that the EU plan to restrict the export of COVID-19 vaccines would have negative consequences, Reuters reported on Thursday. The EC’s consideration of a plan to block shipments to countries with more successful vaccination campaigns is a cause for controversy, given the global nature of vaccine production. Bruckner pointed out that imposing restrictions on exports of doses or materials for their manufacture would disrupt global supply chains and could end up hampering vaccination campaigns around the world. “Our executive leadership has been in direct contact” with the EU, she said maintaining that “our position has been laid out, we are very critical, we can’t support it at all”. Proposed EC rules would grant it the power to block planned exports of vaccines by pharmaceutical companies manufacturing within the bloc as a way of ensuring that an increased supply is available to the EU as a whole.
Brussels, 25 March: Portugal extends state of emergency, eases restrictions
Portugal decided on Thursday to extend the state of emergency until mid-April, as the country continues to gradually lift restrictions imposed in January to curb the spread of coronavirus, Reuters reports. Portugal began easing the measures on 15 March, allowing kindergartens, pre-schools, primary schools, bookshops and hair salons to re-open. Parliament is limited to declaring 15-day states of emergency, which it can only extend, albeit indefinitely, in 15-day increments. If epidemiological trends continue to improve, parliament has announced it will allow the reopening of museums, markets and restaurants before expiration of the current 15-day period. According to a restriction adopted earlier this month, a ban on travel between municipalities is in effect in the period between 26 March and 4 April. The number of new daily cases has dropped sharply since January, when Portugal’s healthcare system was overstretched due to the pandemic. The coronavirus crisis has crippled Portugal’s economy, GDP having dropped 7.6% last year, the steepest decline since 1936.
Brussels, 24 March: Germany considers temporary ban on travel abroad
The German government is considering a temporary ban on travel abroad in the wake of criticism of its restrictions to curb the spread of coronavirus, Reuters reports. The move would reverse Monday’s decision when federal and state leaders decided to allow travel to and from Mallorca without mandatory quarantine or testing. The decision to allow foreign travel while many Germans were not allowed to travel within their own country drew immediate fire. Minister President of Brandenburg Dietmar Woidke stressed “many mistakes were made but this one — especially as regards peoples’ understanding of government’s coronavirus measures — hit like a bomb”. Deputy government spokesperson Ulrike Demmer confirmed the government was thinking about the temporary ban, but pointed out “major constitutional hurdles” would have to be overcome in order to reverse the measure.
Brussels, 25 March: Hungary could delay planned reopening of schools
Hungary’s State Secretary of Public Education, Zoltán Maruzsa, has indicated that the government could delay the planned reopening of schools, Reuters reports. Maruzsa pointed out that the plan to reopen schools on 7 April seems “optimistic” as the healthcare system remains under severe pressure as infection numbers continue to rise. “For now it looks more likely that a return to classroom teaching can take a while longer, but we also need to see the developments of the next few days to assess that”, he said. According to European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control data, Hungary tops the list of EU member states with regard to vaccinations. The country of some 9.7 million has administered at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot to approximately 1.7 million people or roughly 17.5% of the population. “We can rule out that the entire school year will be spent in remote learning”, Maruzsa noted, before reiterating that “it takes some degree of optimism to take the 7 April reopening for granted.”
Brussels, 23 March: Norway introduces new restrictions, delays reopening
Norway’s Minister of Health and Care Services, Bent Høie, announced the introduction of new nationwide restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus on Tuesday, Reuters reported. Serving alcoholic beverages in public is to be banned and plans to gradually lift restrictions are being put on hold. The authorities had intended to announce a move to ease restrictions by the end of the month, but Høie stressed “the situation in Norway is unstable, with rising infection rates in recent weeks”. The number of hospitalisations is also rising. Norway had had one of the lowest infection rates from the outset of the coronavirus pandemic. New measures now include extending the mandatory isolation period from three to ten days for those returning from abroad with a negative test. In addition, people are to keep at least two metres away from those who do not live in their household, up from the previous one metre distancing. “We hope these measures will lead to lower rates of infection,” Line Vold, a senior adviser at
Brussels, 23 March: Poland to announce new restrictions this week
Poland’s Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, announced on Tuesday that authorities will present new restrictions by the end of the week, Reuters reported. Last week, Polish authorities announced the closing of cinemas, theatres, shopping malls and hotels last week as the daily number of new infections began to rise. “The Health Minister and I are in constant contact with our experts from the medical council, we also analyse the environment around us and we will communicate this set of additional restrictions the day after tomorrow at the latest”, Morawiecki declared. He did not offer details about the new restrictions. With the Easter holidays approaching in the devoutly Catholic country, churches remain open but the numbers attending religious services are limited, a restriction that applies to other gatherings as well. Poland, with some 38 million citizens, has reported close to 2.1 million infections to date.
Brussels, 22 March: Dutch economy to rebound slower than first expected
The Dutch Central Bank (DNB) noted on Monday that the economy is set to recover from the coronavirus crisis later than originally expected, Reuters reported. The DNB predicted that because of the continuing lockdown restrictions, GDP growth would be 2.2% this year, following last year’s drop of 3.8%. Previous projections had been based on the assumption that restrictions would be phased out this year. However, bars and restaurants remain closed after five months of lockdown and many stores must operate under restrictions, all of which limits economic activity. As epidemiological trends are negative, the Dutch government is expected to announce further extension of the lockdown into April. The DNB pointed out that the Dutch economy is still in recession due to restrictions imposed with the aim of controlling the coronavirus pandemic.
Brussels, 23 March: Regeneron and Roche’s preparation could be effective against COVID-19
Regeneron and Roche’s preparation of antibodies could be effective against COVID-19 according to late-stage trial results, Reuters reports. According to trial data, the antibody cocktail lowers hospitalisations and deaths some 70% compared to a placebo. The antibodies were developed by Regeneron with US government support and the data shows the cocktail reduces duration of symptoms from 14 days to 10. “New infections continue to rise globally with over three million reported cases last week, so this investigational antibody cocktail may offer hope as a potential new therapy to high-risk patients – particularly in light of recent evidence showing that casirivimab and imdevimab together retain activity against key emerging variants”, Roche’s Chief Medical Officer Levi Garraway noted. Roche expects sales of 260 million dollars to the US government alone in the first quarter of the year.
Brussels, 21 March: EU determined to sanction UK for own procurement failures
The EU is determined to sanction the UK over its own failures to procure COVID-19 vaccines. An unnamed EU official has confirmed plans to ban relevant exports, Reuters reported on Sunday. The official acknowledged that the UK has been significantly more successful at procuring vaccines compared to the bloc but stressed that “what is produced in Halix has to go to the EU”. The Halix plant in the Netherlands is a supplier in British-Swedish AstraZeneca’s deals with the UK and the EU, with Britain stressing the importance of honouring contracts. “The European Commission will know that the rest of the world is looking at the Commission, about how it conducts itself on this, and if contracts get broken, and undertakings, that is a very damaging thing to happen for a trading bloc that prides itself on the rules of law”, UK Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace stated. The EU official asserted that the bloc’s move would not violate any contracts. Helen Whatley, UK Minister of State for Social Care, stressed that the UK would continue talks with the EU “about the importance of no such blockings happening”.
Brussels, 21 March: Commissioner claims EU does not need Sputnik V
European Commissioner for Internal Market, Thierry Breton, asserted on Sunday that the EU does not need the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and can use own production to achieve immunity, Reuters reported on Sunday. The EC has been under fire for its botched vaccine rollout. Breton, head of the EC’s vaccine task force, insists the Commission will be able to deliver at least 300 million doses by end June, predicting that “we have the possibility of reaching continent-wide immunity” by 14 July.”Doses are there, now people must accept vaccination and that we have the logistics”, Breton declared. The Russian vaccine maker berated Breton on Sunday, stressing that “Europeans want a choice of safe and efficient vaccines, which you so far failed to provide”. It called on Breton to say whether his take is the official position of the EU, which would make pursuing the approval of the European Medicines Agency pointless. “We will continue to save lives in other countries”, the manufacturer concluded.
Brussels, 19 March: Greece considering easing some restrictions
Greece is thinking about easing some coronavirus pandemic restrictions as part of the country’s plan to gradually reopen, Reuters reports. Deputy Interior Minister, Stelios Petsas, pointed out that higher temperatures coupled with the country’s vaccination campaign should allow authorities to gradually lift restrictions. “We’re heading towards conditions that will be a little bit looser”, he indicated. The Greek government is to decide on the details of the plan this week. While Greece fared better than most EU member states, the recent surge in infections prompted authorities to reimpose some restrictions. The country reported just over 3,000 new confirmed infections on Thursday and hospitals, suffering from years of under-spending, are treating roughly 4,000 COVID-19 patients.
Brussels, 19 March: Germany to extend lockdown
Germany’s Health Minister, Jens Spahn, warned on Friday that authorities might have to re-impose some restrictions in order to curb the resurgence of coronavirus, Reuters report. “The rising case numbers may mean that we cannot take further opening steps in the weeks to come”, he noted, adding, “we may even have to take steps backwards”. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is to meet on Monday with leaders of federal states to discuss plans to extend the lockdown imposed in December. Infection rates have been on the rise in recent weeks, with the number of confirmed cases increasing to 17,482 on Friday, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). Lars Schaade, RKI Vice President, called on citizens on Friday to avoid travel over the Easter holidays, warning that the number of infections is increasing at an exponential rate. The seven-day incidence reached 96 per 100,000 citizens, in contrast with 72 from the week before and the record-high of some 200 recorded at the end of December last year.
Brussels, 17 March: EU threatens to sanction UK over own shortcomings
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is threatening to sanction the UK over the EU’s failure to provide COVID-19 vaccines to its population, Reuters reported on Wednesday. She stressed the EU could ban the export of vaccines to the UK in an effort to make up for its shortcomings. Von der Leyen pointed out that the situation in the EU is worsening, with less than 10% of the bloc’s adult population vaccinated. “We see the crest of a third wave forming in member states, and we know that we need to accelerate the vaccination rates”, she noted, since “we are in the crisis of the century”. Commenting on countries that have implemented their vaccination campaigns more successfully, von der Leyen said “we will reflect on whether exports to countries with higher vaccination rates than us are still proportionate”. Dominic Raab, UK Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, warned von der Leyen that “the world is watching”, reminding her that the EU assured the UK it would not curb exports that are under contract. “Frankly, I’m surprised we’re having this conversation”, he concluded.
Brussels, 17 March: WHO says J&J vaccine is apparently effective against SARS-CoV-2 variants
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the COVID-19 vaccine developed by US pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson (J&J) is apparently effective against new SARS-CoV-2 variants, DW reported on Wednesday. WHO’s advisers pointed out that the J&J vaccine is effective in countries where new coronavirus variants are spreading. Alejandro Cravioto, head of WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts, pointed out “we have a vaccine that shows it to be safe and to have the necessary efficacy to be recommended for use by us in people over the age of 18, without an upper age limit”. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the first J&J shots would arrive in April. The bloc approved the vaccine for use on Thursday, following in the footsteps of Canada, South Africa and the US.
Brussels, 16 March: Austrian Chancellor calls for vaccine redistribution in EU
Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz stated on Tuesday that he and his allies from Eastern Europe are calling on the EU to rethink its distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, which he claims has been uneven, Reuters reported. Austria and five Eastern European EU member states criticised the bloc’s distribution of vaccines last week, highlighting the need for proportionality and adherence to agreements. Kurz insisted the EU should be able to “develop a correction mechanism”. He noted that EC President Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council President Charles Michel are working on a solution. The Commission has pointed out that the distribution arrangement allows redistribution of unused doses should member states not take up their full allocation. He also noted that it is for member states to decide whether they want to return to a population-based distribution.
Brussels, 17 March: Iceland to reopen borders to vaccinated visitors
Iceland has announced the reopening of its borders this week to visitors who have been vaccinated, saying they will not be subject to quarantine or testing, Reuters reports. The move is aimed at attracting more tourists, making Iceland one of the first countries to reopen its borders since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Tourism in Iceland contracted some 75% in 2020, with GDP dropping about 6.6%. Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir commented that “the world has been through a lot in the past twelve months, and we are all hoping for a slow and safe return to normalcy”. A return to normalcy, she declared, includes the restoration of freedom of movement, which is “valuable to culture, trade and enterprise”. Until now, Iceland has allowed EU visitors who have been vaccinated to enter the country without restrictions. This is being expanded to non-EU citizens on Thursday. According to the plan, visitors vaccinated with shots approved by the European Medicines Agency will be allowed in without restrictions.
Brussels, 16 March: Coronavirus cases grow exponentially in Germany
The number of confirmed coronavirus infection in Germany is growing at an exponential rate, according to Robert Koch Institute epidemiologist Dirk Brockmann, Reuters reports. He pointed to the easing of restrictions as the cause, noting that the number of new confirmed cases per 100,000 people stood at 83.7 on Tuesday in contrast with 68 from the week before. Germany decided to ease restrictions earlier in March, authorising local authorities to reimpose measures should the number of new infections per 100,000 people exceed 100 for three consecutive days. According to RKI’s predictions, the figure could reach 200 by mid-April. On Monday, Germany suspended the use of the British-Swedish AstraZeneca vaccine following reports of side effects including blood clots. A government spokesman pointed out that authorities will decide on further steps once the European Medicines Agency has reviewed the vaccine again.
Brussels, 15 March: WHO urges against panic around AstraZeneca
World Health Organisation (WHO) Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan stated that the panic surrounding the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is unjustified on Monday, Reuters reports. She urged people to follow the science, noting that no deaths have been linked to the vaccines. Several EU member states have suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine because of reports of possible side effects. “We do not want people to panic”, the WHO official stressed, reiterating that to date there was no evidence suggesting the vaccine caused blood clots . On Tuesday, Sweden joined the list of EU member states that have suspended the use of the vaccine, stating it was a precautionary move. Sweden’s Public Health Agency declared it had decided to suspend the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine “until the European Medicines Agency’s investigation into suspected side effects is done”.
Brussels, 14 March: Netherlands suspends use of AstraZeneca vaccine
The Netherlands suspended the use of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by the British-Swedish AstraZeneca pharmaceuticals on Sunday following reports of recipients developing unexpected blood clots, Reuters reported. The Dutch government stressed that the suspension will remain in effect at least until 29 March, a setback for the country’s vaccination campaign since the authorities had ordered 12 million doses of the vaccine. The plan had been to administer 290,000 AstraZeneca shots in the coming two weeks. Dutch Minister of Health, Welfare and Sports, Hugo de Jonge, insisting “we can’t allow any doubts about the vaccine”, stated that “it is wise to pause for now”. AstraZeneca pointed out that a review of the data showed no evidence of an increased risk of blood clots. Last week, the Dutch government noted that there was no reason to suspend the use of the vaccine, pointing out that the European Medicines Agency had stated there was no indication that it caused blood clots.
Brussels, 15 March: Most of Italy under new lockdown as of Monday
Italian authorities have imposed a new lockdown on roughly three quarters of Italy as of Monday, Reuters reporte. Italy’s Minister of Health, Roberto Speranza, on Sunday, said he hoped that the new restrictions, coupled with the vaccination campaign, would allow authorities to ease restrictions later. “Each dose of vaccine injected is a step in the direction of the way out of the crisis”, he observed. The new lockdown includes a ban on the operation of schools, museums, restaurants and shops until 6 April. According to Our World in Data, the number of new confirmed cases exceeded 22,000 in Italy on Saturday, representing a weekly increase of roughly 15%. Prime Minister Mario Draghi stated: “I am aware that today’s measures will have an impact on children’s education, on the economy but also on the psychological state of us all”. It was vital to impose restrictions now to avoid more severe restrictions later, he said.
Brussels, 12 March: Italy to start commercial production of Sputnik V in late 2021
Swiss Adienne Pharma & Biotech should start commercial production of the Russian Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine in Italy in late 2021, according to TASS, as reported by Reuters . The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) signed an agreement with Adienne this week, with production to start after regulatory approval. Adienne head Antonio Francesco Di Naro pointed out that, in addition to acquiring regulatory approval, the company needs to complete the technology exchange process, test its production and present data to national regulators before it can launch commercial sales. Besides the deal with Adienne, the RDIF has reached agreements with drug makers in France, Germany and Spain, arrangements which suggest that some companies might not wait for the European Medicines Agency to approve the vaccine.
Brussels, 11 March: J&J COVID-19 vaccine approved for use in EU
The EU has approved the COVID-19 vaccine developed by US Johnson & Johnson pharmaceuticals. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved it for use on Thursday and the EC granted final approval later in the day, according to CNBC reporting. The vaccine is administered in one dose and can be stored in standard refrigerators, which alleviates some of the logistical challenges other vaccines presented. This is the fourth COVID-19 vaccine to be approved by the EMA, following those developed by US Pfizer and German BioNTech, British-Swedish AstraZeneca and US Moderna. While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are about 95% effective against moderate and severe COVID-19, the one developed by J&J is approximately 66% effective. According to an unnamed EU official, J&J has informed the bloc of its supply issues, which could derail plans to deliver 55 million shots to the EU by July. The delay could further hamper the EU’s vaccination campaign, which, because of bureaucratic obstacles, is falling behind the pace set by campaigns in the UK and the US.
Brussels, 11 March: China to continue working with WHO on SARS-CoV-2 origin
China’s PM Li Keqiang announced on Thursday that the country will continue working with the World Health Organisation (WHO) on finding the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, Reuters reports. Commenting on US criticism over lack of transparency and data sharing with the WHO team of investigators, Li asserted that Beijing had “acted in a fact-based manner and with an open, transparent and cooperative approach”. The investigation team is planning to scrap the interim report on its visit to China as an international group of scientists calls for a new investigation, according to the Wall Street Journal. Team member Dominic Dwyer noted that China refused to share raw data on early cases, which could hamper efforts to get to the bottom of how the pandemic started. The team was not allowed contact with community members during its visit to China and was restricted to visits arranged by their hosts.
Brussels, 11 March: Denmark temporarily stops administering AstraZeneca shots
Denmark’s Health Authority suspended the use of COVID-19 vaccines developed by British-Swedish AstraZeneca pharmaceuticals on Thursday, after reports of “serious cases of blood clots among vaccinated people”, according to DW reporting. Danish authorities did not say there was a causal link between the vaccine and blood clots, but did point out that six EU member states had temporarily stopped using a batch of AstraZeneca vaccines. The Danish Medicines Agency announced launching a probe into the vaccine, as did its counterparts from other EU member states and the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Commenting on the blood clot cases in Austria, the EMA stressed it had not found any evidence linking them to AstraZeneca. The EMA went on to point out that the rate of blood clot incidents in the general population is comparable to that in the people who received the vaccine shot.
Brussels, 9 March: Health restrictions weakening democracies – Civil Liberties Union
The Civil Liberties Union for Europe warned on Tuesday that restrictions imposed to control the coronavirus pandemic have weakened democracy in Europe, The New York Times reports. Governments have seized extraordinary powers in the name of pandemic control, the Union asserted, citing how authorities in Hungary, Poland and Slovenia have abused these new powers to silence criticism and strengthen their hold on power. The Union noted that even in established democracies like France, Germany, Ireland and Sweden, “people’s freedoms, including the right to protest, have been curtailed in a bid to stop the spread of the virus and lawmaking has often gone through fast-track procedures”. Besides limiting the possibility for civil society to engage in the political process, the new restrictions and powers “limited oversight of the executive”, the Union concluded.
Brussels, 10 March: EU to receive additional 4 million COVID-19 doses this month
The European Commission announced Wednesday that it had reached an agreement with US Pfizer pharmaceuticals and the German BioNTech biotech company for an additional four million COVID-19 vaccine shots, Reuters reports. The additional four million doses are to be delivered this month and will come on top of previously planned deliveries. EC President Ursula von der Leyen pointed out that “through their targeted use where they are most needed, in particular in border regions, these doses will also help ensure or restore free movement of goods and people”. According to previous agreements with the bloc, Pfizer is to supply 500 million COVID-19 vaccine shots to the EU by the end of the year. The EC pointed out that “despite the current reduction in the number of deaths across the EU, due to vaccination of the elderly and most vulnerable people, the Commission is concerned by the development of a series of COVID-19 hotspots across the EU”.
Brussels, 9 March: French authorities oppose Paris Region lockdown
France’s public health director Jérôme Salomon has announced that the government is opposed to a lockdown of the Paris Region even though the number of COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalisation has reached the highest level since November last year, Reuters reports. “Lockdown is a last resort measure that would be submitted to the government and the president if we were under the impression the hospital system could not cope”, he explained. On Monday, regional authorities ordered hospitals to make room for critical COVID-19 patients by cancelling 40% of their regular activities. According to Dr. Mehran Monchi, head of the intensive care unit head at Melun Hospital, the number of cases has meant that “with intensive care beds, in our region, and in certain other regions, we’re starting to be close to capacity”.
Brussels, 8 March: Number of new UK COVID-19 cases lowest in five months
The latest UK government data shows the number of new COVID-19 cases dropped on Monday to the lowest level since late September last year, Reuters reports. According to the data, 4,712 new cases were confirmed on Monday, compared to 5,177 the day before. The statistics show 65 new deaths within 28 days of a positive test, the lowest since mid-October. More than 22.37 million shots had been administered by Monday, up some 164,000 compared to the day before. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the positive epidemiological trends on Monday as encouraging. He urged the need for continued vigilance, reminding that last summer “we had the disease down to levels much below where it is today and then we saw what happened with the spike”. With this in mind, he cautioned that people should do their best to avoid another spike.
Brussels, 8 March: EU medicines regulator against national approval of Sputnik V
European Medicines Agency (EMA) managing board head Christa Wirthumer-Hoche urged EMA’s national counterparts on Sunday not to approve the Russian COVID-19 vaccine Sputnik V until the EMA has reviewed it, Reuters reports. “We can have Sputnik V on the market here in future when the appropriate data have been reviewed”, she said, pointing out that the EMA has started its rolling review of the vaccine. At present, Sputnik V has been approved or is under review by national regulators in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Brussels has indicated that the bloc could start talks with manufacturers should four or more EU member states request the move. Wirthumer-Hoche noted that “data packages are coming from Russian manufacturers and of course they will be reviewed according to European standards for quality, safety and efficacy”.
Brussels, 8 March: Germany eases some restrictions
Some German states have begun to lift pandemic control restrictions imposed since December last year, DW reports. In some instances, German authorities have decided to allow citizens to meet with citizens from another household, while limited the number of adults at such meetings to five. In addition, citizens in some states are allowed to set up shopping appointments in their stores if the number of new infections per 100,000 citizens remains below 100 on weekly basis. Also, if conditions permit, non-contact outdoor sports will be allowed for up to 10 participants, while children below the age of 14 are allowed to engage in outdoor sports in groups of up to 20. The seven-day incidence currently stands at 68. The easing of restrictions is part of Germany’s five-step plan, with further steps to be taken biweekly should epidemiological trends prove positive.
Brussels, 4 March: WHO to scrap initial COVID-19 origin report as flawed
The World Health Organisation (WHO) team investigating the origin of COVID-19 plans to scrap the interim report on its recent probe in China as flawed, according to the Wall Street Journal, so Reuters reports. A group of international scientists has called for a new investigation. WHO has announced the full report should be released in the coming weeks but has not explained why it has been delayed. Chinese authorities refused to provide raw data on early cases to the WHO probe team, Dominic Dwyer, one of the team, said last month. This had hampered efforts to investigate the origin of the virus. The team was not allowed to conduct the first phase of research and was prevented from contact with community members, with its visits limited to those organised by Chinese authorities. The US has criticised the terms of the visit and accused China of covering up the extent of the initial coronavirus outbreak.
Brussels, 5 March: France pushes for EU solidarity over vaccination
France’s Secretary of State for European Affairs, Clément Beaune, has warned that EU solidarity would be jeopardized if member states used COVID-19 vaccines developed by China or Russia, Reuters reports. Beaune pointed out that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) still has not approved the vaccines.”If they went to choose the Chinese and/or Russian vaccine, I think it would be quite serious”, he declared. Not only would it undermine EU solidarity, Beaune said, he believed use of the vaccines could present a health risk, since neither the Russian nor the Chinese vaccine had been approved for use in the bloc. In the wake of Brussels’ fumbled vaccination plan, EU member states are scrambling to acquire vaccines outside the bloc-approved scheme. The Russian Sputnik V vaccine has been approved or is in the process of being approved in three EU member states – Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The EMA recently started a rolling review of the vaccine while the European Commission noted on Thursday that it is not negotiating a purchase of Sputnik V.
Brussels, 4 March: EU may extend export restrictions for COVID-19 vaccines
The EU is looking to extend restrictions on the export of COVID-19 vaccines which had been due to expire at the end of the month, according to two unnamed EU sources, Reuters reports. The sources noted that the bloc could extend the restrictions until the end of June, a move that could spark tensions with countries that are reliant on EU-made vaccines. “The Commission will propose its extension into June,” a senior EU diplomat observed, adding that this “was greeted by the member states with approval, not necessarily enthusiasm, but there is a feeling that we still need that mechanism”. A second diplomat asserted that many EU member states, including France and Germany, had shown their support for the measure at a meeting on Wednesday. The measure was implemented at the end of January in response to announcements by some pharmaceutical companies that their promised vaccine deliveries to the EU would be delayed.
Brussels, 4 March: EU’s medicines regulator launches Sputnik V rolling review
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) noted on Thursday that it had begun a rolling review of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, Reuters reports. Hungary was the first EU member state to approve the Russian COVID-19 vaccine on a national level. Slovakia has ordered the shots and the Czech Republic has announced plans to use the vaccine. The EMA stressed that it will review data from ongoing trials until it has enough evidence for a formal application. Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which promotes Sputnik V internationally, stressed the importance of not letting politics get in the way of the rollout. He predicted that several EU member states would approve the vaccine at national levels this month and concluded that Russia could start supplying the EU with vaccines in June should the EMA approve the shot by then.
Brussels, 3 March: Poland to manufacture US Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine
Polish biotech company Mabion is to start producing the US Novavax vaccine developer’s COVID-19 vaccines, the two companies having signed a preliminary agreement to collaborate, Reuters reports. The move is part of the Polish government’s efforts to step up its vaccination campaign, with the Polish Development Fund (PFR) providing financial support to Mabion. According to the agreement, Novavax will transfer its production technology to Mabion and the state fund will provide some US$ 11 million to help the company double its production capacity. Mabion expects the technology transfer will be wrapped up by the middle of the year. PFR CEO Paweł Borys pointed out that production capacity is the cause of delays in COVID-19 vaccine deliveries, stressing that the investment “is a direct response to these problems”. While the Novavax vaccine has yet to be approved by EU regulators, Poland has secured eight million doses as part of the bloc’s joint purchases.
Brussels, 3 March: World Bank grants and loans for vaccination campaigns in Africa
The World Bank is preparing grants and loans to support COVID-19 vaccination campaigns in Africa, according to Reuters. The Bank notes that talks on financing projects are underway in Eswatini, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Tunisia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but did not provide any details. An unnamed spokesperson for the Bank said “the funds are available now, and for most African countries”, noting that “the financing would be on grant or highly concessional terms”. The spokesperson pointed out that the programme is the Bank’s first in support of national COVID-19 vaccination campaigns in Africa. Pointing to a second wave of coronavirus infections in Africa, the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention last week called on pharmaceutical companies to waive some intellectual property rights in order to make more vaccines available in poorer countries more quickly.
Brussels, 1 March: EU anti-fraud agency warns against fraudulent vaccine resellers
The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) warns that suspicious resellers have offered EU governments roughly one billion non-existent COVID-19 vaccine doses. OLAF noted that it is not aware of any EU government having been defrauded in this way thus far. Meanwhile, it is cooperating with pharmaceutical companies and government authorities to prevent such scams. OLAF Director-General Ville Itälä said it was predictable that counterfeit vaccines would be pushed on the EU market and that it was important, therefore, to take preventive measures. He noted that pharmaceutical companies insist on selling vaccines directly to governments. Italian authorities are investigating an offer for vaccines from unnamed resellers to regional authorities in Veneto. Fraud attempts place added pressure on the EU’s vaccination campaign as the bloc aims to vaccinate 70% of its adult population by the end of the summer. So far, it has vaccinated approximately 5%, leaving it significantly behind Israel, the UK and the US.
Brussels, 1 March: Twitter to censor coronavirus information it deems to be false
Twitter social network has announced plans to step up its censorship of COVID-19 information it deems to be false, Reuters reports. The company noted that questionable information would come with a warning, adding that users who repeatedly violate the new rule would be banned on a permanent basis. Twitter reports having challenged more than 11.5 million accounts since it introduced rules against false information, and notes that it is stepping up its verification efforts. Katy Minshall, head of UK public policy at Twitter, pointed out “today we will begin applying labels to tweets that may contain misleading information about COVID-19 vaccines, in addition to our continued efforts to remove the most harmful COVID-19 misleading information from the service”. The focus, she said, will be on claims about safety and effectiveness of vaccines since concerns have been expressed that distrust could jeopardise the effectiveness of vaccination campaigns.
Brussels, 25 February: EU regulator issues guidance for COVID-19 vaccine modification
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) noted on Thursday that it has issued guidance for modification of COVID-19 vaccines to make them effective against different variants, Reuters reported on Friday. The announcement comes as the coronavirus continues to mutate and mutations continue to spread. The EMA pointed out that it assumes vaccines against new variants will be based on the same technology as their parent vaccines, in which case regulatory focus should be on the immune response. Noting that at least one trial would be needed for vaccines against new variants, the EMA stressed that “large-scale safety and efficacy studies are not needed”. It added that additional laboratory studies are not needed to support the development of vaccines against new variants, since the new vaccines should be made by the same manufacturer responsible for the parent vaccines.
Brussels, 25 February: AstraZeneca to deliver 40 million doses to EU this quarter
Pascal Soriot, CEO of the British-Swedish AstraZeneca pharmaceuticals conglomerate, has confirmed that the company is determined to deliver 40 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to the EU by the end of the quarter, Reuters reports. This is less than half of what the company promised to deliver in the contract for the first quarter of 2021. The announcement is in line with AstraZeneca’s earlier warnings that it would not be able to provide 90 million shots by the end of the first quarter. “I am disappointed that lower-than-expected output in our dedicated European supply chain has affected our ability to deliver”, Soriot said. He noted that the company is doing everything it can to deliver the doses this quarter. He did not comment on AstraZeneca’s contractual obligation to deliver 180 million shots in the second quarter. The EU has fallen significantly behind the US and the UK with regard to vaccination of its citizens and has called on AstraZeneca to deliver more doses on several occasions.
Brussels, 25 February: Czech government tightens restrictions to stem surge
The Czech government is planning to tighten restrictions aimed at controlling the coronavirus pandemic, Reuters reports. Prime Minister Andrej Babiš warned on Wednesday that hospitals could be overwhelmed if the government fails to take action, as he announced talks with the opposition to discuss plans this evening. Yesterday, Interior Minister Jan Hamáček noted that tightening the restrictions would require an extension of the government’s state of emergency powers, something the parliament has previously rejected. He acknowledged the need to consult with the opposition, given its criticism of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Industry and Trade Minister Karel Havlíček insisted that proposed restrictions would not affect factories, which have remained open throughout the pandemic. According to Our World in Data, in the past week, the Czech Republic has suffered the highest per capita infection rate globally.
Brussels, 25 February: French-German border under tougher control
France has announced new restrictions at its border with Germany in response to the growing number of coronavirus infections in the Moselle region, Reuters reports. To date, cross-border workers had been allowed to travel freely between the German and French parts of the region. Now, they will have to present negative PCR tests for non-work related travel. The two countries announced earlier this week that they would try to prevent the closure of the border, but noted that joint police patrols could be stepped up. While France is avoiding a new nation-wide lockdown, it has imposed tougher restrictions locally. President Emmanuel Macron has been advocating against the closure of the bloc’s internal borders and criticised Germany for closing the border amid the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. The Moselle region recently saw a growing number of infections of the South African variant, leading egional authorities to recommend a local lockdown.
Brussels, 24 February: Denmark to ease restrictions in March
The Danish government has announced plans to ease restrictions imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus next month, Reuters reports. Shops and some schools are to reopen, with authorities to allow outdoor activities of up to 25 people. Denmark’s Minister of Health and Elderly Affairs, Magnus Heunicke, cautioned that fewer restrictions could lead to more hospitalisations, and that hospital admissions could briefly peak in mid-April at approximately 880, in contrast to the current 247. Finance Minister Nicolai Wammen made the point that the planned reopening of stores should inject more than US$ 300,000 per month to the economy. On the other hand, he warned that “we have seen other countries that have gone too fast and lost control of the infection”, a fate Denmark must avoid at all costs.
Brussels, 24 February: Sweden to loosen rules for vaccinated elderly
Sweden will loosen rules for vaccinated care home residents, Anders Tegnell, State Epidemiologist of the Public Health Agency of Sweden (FoHM), has announced, Reuters reports. The move comes against a backdrop of rising infection rates over the last few weeks. The FoHM warned that rules could be tightened to curb the spread of coronavirus. While more than 80% of elderly care home residents have been vaccinated and 64% have received their second shot, according to the daily Dagens Nyheter, stricter measures for the rest of the country are to be announced tomorrow. “We have discussed how those who have been fully vaccinated can live, and we think it can be a little different from the very restrictive way they have been doing up to now,” Tegnell observed. Citing the restrictions in the UK as too strict, he indicated that once “we see that the spread of the infection is a little more stable, we can slowly start to ease a number of restrictions”.
Brussels, 22 February: Italy extends travel bans
The Italian government decided on Monday to extend bans on non-essential travel between regions until 27 March in an effort to control the spread of new coronavirus variants, Reuters reports. The ban, imposed before Christmas, was due to end on Thursday, but officials expressed concern over the possibility of a surge in cases of the new variants and extended the ban. The number of new daily confirmed cases has dropped from roughly 40,000 in November to below 15,000. Italy has received 4.69 million vaccine shots and through its vaccination campaign, launched at the end of 2020, it has administered about 3.5 million shots. Officials are considering whether to keep reserves for administering second shots or use all doses immediately, like the UK. According to La Stampa, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi is in favour of administering all available shots.
Brussels, 23 February: UK might lift restrictions in June
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed hope on Tuesday that authorities will lift corona pandemic restrictions on 21 June, according to Reuters. Johnson said that while it is difficult to make accurate predictions since the situation is volatile, he was “very optimistic that we’ll be able to get there”. Announcing the plan to lift the restrictions on Monday, he noted that some businesses would have to stay closed until the summer. According to the plan, restrictions on large events and night clubs will be the last to be removed. The government is insisting that the gradual easing of restrictions will be determined by data, not dates. The UK has administered COVID-19 vaccines to more than 25% of its population, making it the fastest rollout among large countries.
Brussels, 21 February: Belgians protest ‘absurd’ restrictions
Clergy and worshippers of different religions protested in Brussels on Sunday against restrictions that limit the number of people allowed to attend mass to 15, Reuters reported. Father Marc Leroy of the National Basilica of the Sacred Heart pointed out that the restriction “is an incredible absurdity”, noting that any restrictions should be proportionate to the size of buildings. The National Basilica is one of the largest churches in the world, but the restrictions take no account of its size and treat it just the same as significantly smaller places of worship in Belgium. The government imposed the blanket restriction in December last year. An unnamed Interior Ministry spokeswoman pointed out that the restrictions reflect the authorities’ concern and efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus. The government, she added, would address the issue of restrictions at a meeting slated for Friday.
Brussels, 22 February: GSK and Sanofi start COVID-19 vaccine trial
The UK’s GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and the French Sanofi pharmaceutical companies have announced started a trial of their COVID-19 vaccine, Reuters reports. The two companies predicted that the trial should reach the final stage in the second quarter of the year, allowing, they hoped, the vaccine to be approved by the end of the third quarter. In December last year, the pharmaceutical companies noted that the vaccine would be delayed because trials had shown poor immune response in older people. The trial to be carried out will be on 720 healthy people in the US, Honduras and Panama. The vaccine is based on the same technology as some of Sanofi’s influenza vaccines and will be coupled with GSK’s adjuvant, which acts as a booster.
Brussels, 19 February: Poland warns of third wave of infections
The Poland’s Ministry of Health warned on Friday that the country has been hit by a third wave of coronavirus infections, with the number of new confirmed cases showing a significant increase over last week, Reuters reports. Having recently reopened ski resorts, theatres, hotels and cinemas, authorities warn the measures may have to be rolled back, depending on epidemiological trends. Ministry spokesman Wojciech Andrusiewicz declared that the country is “at the beginning of the third wave,” albeit “not as dynamic as in Slovakia or the Czech Republic”. He pointed out that the British variant accounts for approximately 10% of coronavirus cases. He said the number of confirmed new cases stood at 8,777 on Friday and indicated that the weekly growth of infections had reached about 20%.
Brussels, 19 February: France starts testing dogs trained to find coronavirusFrance started testing dogs trained to find coronavirus this week in the greater Paris region in an effort to see how effective they can be, RFI reports. The dogs were trained at the Alfort veterinary school. Professor Dominique Grandjean asserted that dogs can be more accurate than swab tests, citing how trained dogs had identified coronavirus in patients who, while testing negative at the time, soon developed symptoms and tested positive. Three of the eight dogs in the being used in the trial have been provided by the United Arab Emirates and two others were borrowed from French fire brigade units. Grandjean noted that training the dogs to find coronavirus in no way interfered with their ability to continue helping firemen or to help in detecting illicit substances at airports. The use of dogs in the bid to identify cases of coronavirus infection can not only complement existing testing methods but provide a non-intrusive alternate to the standard form of testing.
Brussels, 18 February: Researchers call for efficient rationing of vaccines
Two researchers in Canada are calling for more efficient rationing of COVID-19 vaccines, Reuters reports. Researchers Danuta Skowronski and Gaston De Serres write that Pfizer’s vaccine is 92.6% effective after the first dose, compared to the vaccine developed by Moderna with 92.1%. They note that providing the second dose provides “little added benefit in the short term” and stress the second shot could be used to vaccinate more people. At the same time, the researchers warn that administering only one dose could shorten the duration of protection. Responding to the claims by the two researcher, Pfizer noted that “it is critical for health authorities to conduct surveillance on implemented alternative dosing schedules to ensure that vaccines provide the maximum possible protection.” EU and US authorities are sticking by the intervals tested in their respective trials.
Brussels, 17 February: Pandemic response pushes global debt to GDP ratio beyond 355%
The response of authorities to the coronavirus pandemic has pushed global debt to GDP ratio over 355% in the last year, up 35 percentage points on the annual level, Reuters reports. Global debt stands at a record US$ 281 trillion, up approximately 24 trillion compared to one year ago. The Institute of International Finance (IIF) industry group estimates that government programmes account for approximately 50% of the increase, followed by companies, banks and households. “We expect global government debt to increase by another US$ 10 trillion this year and surpass 92 trillion”, the IIF report notes. It warns that political and social pressure on governments could limit economic recovery and jeopardise their ability to handle any future crises. Debt spikes were pronounced in the EU, with debt to GDP ratios of the non-financial sector increasing approximately 50 percentage points in Greece, France and Spain.
Brussels, 17 February: Croatia could buy Sputnik V before EU approval
According to Croatia’s Health Minister Vili Beroš, the country may buy Russian Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine before it has been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), Reuters reports. Beroš noted that the government has asked the national regulator to assess the vaccine. EU’s slow vaccine rollout is putting pressure on governments to take action. Thus far, neighbouring Hungary is the only EU member state to start using the Chinese and Russian vaccines without EMA approval. “Each government must take care about the health of its citizens,” Beroš said, pointing out that “it is not illegitimate to seek solutions also outside the European Union, especially if there is a delay in deliveries within the EU framework.” He noted that Russia is planning to seek EMA approval for Sputnik V but concluded that Croatia would not necessarily wait.
Brussels, 16 February: EU regulator to decide on J&J vaccine next month
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) announced on Tuesday it could decide whether to approve the COVID-19 vaccine developed by US Johnson & Johnson (J&J) pharmaceuticals by mid-March, Reuters reports. J&J noted that it had submitted applications for approval of its vaccine to the EMA as well as to the US authorities. According to the results of a study released in January, the vaccine was 66% effective against multiple variants of the virus. While not as effective as its rivals, the vaccine developed by J&J requires one shot and does not need to be shipped frozen. The EMA says it can fast-track the review since it had been assessing some of the data in real time. J&J indicated it could start distributing the vaccine in the EU in the second quarter of the year.
Brussels, 15 February: European Anti-Fraud Office warns of fake vaccines
The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) has warned EU member states against fake COVID-19 vaccines, according to Reuters. The OLAF pointed out that hoaxers want “to defraud national authorities looking to step up the pace of vaccination to keep their citizens safe”, as vaccination campaigns across the bloc are struggle to cope with supply disruptions. The Office noted that it helped seize more than 14 million items since the start of its investigation in March last year, including fake test kits. The EU is looking to vaccinate at least 70% of its adult population by the end of the summer, but is facing vaccine delivery delays as well as hoaxes.
Brussels, 15 February: WHO approves vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and OxfordThe World Health Organisation (WHO) announced Monday that it has approved the COVID-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University for emergency use, Reuters reports. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared “we now have all the pieces in place for the rapid distribution of vaccines.” He also stressed the need to scale up production. He called on vaccine developers to submit applications for approval to the WHO “at the same time as they submit them to regulators in high-income countries.” The vaccine accounts for the lion’s share of doses in the COVAX vaccine-sharing initiative co-led by the WHO , since more than 330 million doses are to be rolled out from the end of the month to poorer countries. The AstraZeneca vaccine is less expensive and more easily distributed compared to some rivals.
Brussels, 14 February: Germany tightens border control to curb infections
Germany imposed tighter restrictions on its borders with fellow EU member states Austria and the Czech Republic in a further move to curb the spread of coronavirus, AP reported on Sunday. While infection rates in Germany have been declining over the last weeks, officials worry about possible impacts of the variants from South Africa and the UK. Both mutations have been confirmed in Germany, but apparently account for a small proportion of cases. Markus Söder, Minister President of Bavaria, warned that failing to take the variants seriously “would mean significant consequences.” Horst Seehofer, Federal Minister of the Interior, Building and Community, noted that cross-border commuters who work in “systemically relevant sectors” will be allowed to cross and concluded that authorities will be “pragmatic wherever it is possible.”
Brussels, 12 February: AstraZeneca signing new manufacturing agreements in EU
The British-Swedish AstraZeneca biotech company is signing new manufacturing deals in the EU in an effort to produce coronavirus vaccines in the bloc, Politico reported on Friday. The company had only one plant authorised to manufacture the vaccine in the EU at the end of January and is now signing manufacturing deals to increase production in the bloc, including one with the German IDT Biologika biotech company. AstraZeneca announced in January a 60% cut in coronavirus vaccine deliveries to the EU, which the European Commission criticised heavily. After negotiations with the EC, the company announced that it would supply the bloc with 40 million vaccine doses in the first quarter of the year, with some to be imported from the production site in the US. According to unnamed sources, AstraZeneca is also engaged in talks with manufacturers in China and Russia.
Brussels, 11 February: Croatia to ease restrictions next week
The Croatian government announced plans to ease coronavirus pandemic restrictions next week, Reuters reported on Thursday. Epidemiological trends have been positive for the last several weeks, with the number of confirmed new cases standing at 376 on Thursday, significantly lower compared to the peak of about 4,500 in December last. The Government decided to allow restaurants and coffee shops to sell beverages to go, having been closed since November. The neighbouring EU member state Slovenia decided to ease restrictions as well, scrapping mandatory negative coronavirus tests for those entering the country. Slovenian Interior Minister Aleš Hojs stressed that travel restrictions within the country will remain in force during the night only, starting from next week.
Brussels, 12 February: EU regulator to speed up approval of CureVac vaccine
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) announced today that it had begun a real-time review of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by German CureVac bio-pharmaceutical company in a bid to speed up its potential approval, Reuters reports. CureVac started mass testing in December last year and initial study results are expected next month or in April. The EMA pointed out it decided to start the review based on preliminary results of early clinical and laboratory studies. “Rolling review” processes speed up approval of effective vaccines since it allows researchers to submit findings in real time, before final data is ready. All coronavirus vaccines approved in the EU went through rolling review processes. CureVac is cooperating with UK’s GSK on the development of a different coronavirus vaccine that should be effective against several variants of the virus.
Brussels, 10 February: Germany extends nationwide lockdown at least until March
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders have agreed to extend the nationwide lockdown at least until 7 March, DW reported yesterday. The previous deadline was 14 February and the extension was agreed as infection numbers decline. The latest lockdown, imposed in November last year, was tightened before Christmas. Merkel will next meet with state leaders on 3 March to reassess the situation. While some experts maintain that schools are hotspots, researchers at the University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf, concerned that some children are suffering from mental health problems amid the lockdowns, have been urging schools to reach out to students. At Wednesday’s meeting, Merkel and state leaders agreed to allow hair salons to reopen on 1 March and noted that day-care centres and schools should reopen gradually, leaving it to the states to decide when and how.
Brussels, 10 February: EU regulator has not received Sputnik V application
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) reported Wednesday that it has not received an application for the approval of the Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, Reuters reports. “The developers have received scientific advice from EMA providing them with the latest regulatory and scientific guidance for the development of their vaccine,” EMA noted. The EU regulator added that it is in contact with the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, which developed the vaccine, to decide how to proceed. According to peer-reviewed trial results released in The Lancet medical journal earlier this month, Sputnik V is 91.6% effective against symptomatic COVID-19. The EMA has approved three coronavirus vaccines thus far — those developed by Moderna, Astra-Zeneca and Pfizer and BioNTech.
Brussels, 10 February: Israeli scientists claim a drug speeds up recovery from COVID-19
According to preliminary results of a trial conduced on 30 patients in Tel Aviv, Israeli scientists have developed a drug that speeds up recovery from COVID-19, according to a Times of India report on Wednesday. The drug, EXO-CD24, was originally developed in 2020 to treat cancer. Trial results show that 29 of the 30 patients recovered from COVID-19 in four days, compared to an average recovery time of three to four weeks. The scientists stress the need for further studies and trials, but note that preliminary results show an efficacy rate of 96% when used on patients with moderate to severe symptoms. Nadir Arber, one of the scientists involved in the research, pointed out that “even if the vaccines do their job, and even if there aren’t any new mutations, one way or another, the coronavirus will be staying with us.” He concluded that EXO-CD24 should lower the pressure on the medical community.
Brussels, 10 February: WHO team proposes four scenarios for pandemic origin
After wrapping up their visit to Wuhan in China, the World Health Organisation (WHO) investigating team proposed four scenarios for the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, Reuters reports. In the first scenario, one person came into direct contact with an infected horseshoe bat. In the second scenario the transmission to humans was via an unidentified intermediary species. According to the third scenario, promoted by China, the virus was imported via frozen foods. According to the fourth scenario, the virus was leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology which studied coronaviruses. Ben Embarek, head of the WHO team, ruled out this latter possibility as “very unlikely” and said the team would not investigate it further. Bat populations around Wuhan have been ruled out as a source of the pandemic. Liang Wannian of the Chinese National Health Commission pointed out the origin of the virus remains unclear. China criticised the idea of investigating the origin of the virus, noting it would cooperate only if it is not expected to take the blame for the pandemic.
Brussels, 8 February: Facebook announces more COVID-19 censorship
Facebook has announced plans to ramp up censorship of COVID-19 claims it deems false, Reuters reported on Monday. The US tech giant insists that claims the new coronavirus was man-made are false, making clear that such claims will be censored. In contrast, the World Health Organisation team continues its investigation into the origins of the virus. Facebook noted that it will censor accounts and groups that repeatedly share health claims it sees as false and believes could cause “imminent harm.” At the end of last year, Facebook announced plans to censor any such health claims while adding that it would help users reach coronavirus vaccines. The tech giant stated its intention is to target select racial groups and people aged over 50 with educational content tailored for them in order to address their concerns about new vaccines.
Brussels, 9 February: French Health Minister defends pushback against lockdown callsFrance’s Minister of Solidarity and Health, Olivier Véran, has defended the government’s decision to push back against demands by some medics for a new nationwide lockdown, Reuters reported on Tuesday. He pointed out that “it is possible and indeed preferable” to avoid a new lockdown, stressing that epidemiological trends are stable and adding that the current situation does not warrant a new nationwide lockdown. Some health officials had expressed concern that the situation would take a turn for the worse and demanded a new lockdown, warning that new coronavirus variants are more contagious. “We are monitoring the progression of the South African variant,” Véran stated, noting that “we are considering increasing the protection of health workers in overseas territories.” While the number of new confirmed infections stood at 4,317 on Monday, in contrast with 19,715 on Sunday, the number of cases requiring hospitalisation increased by 343 and stood at 28,037.
Brussels, 8 February: Minister President of Bavaria wants to extend German lockdown
Minister President of Bavaria Markus Söder insists it is too early to lift the lockdown in Germany, stressing the move would risk a new wave of coronavirus infections, Reuters reports. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and heads of German states are to hold a virtual meeting on Wednesday to discuss the possibility of easing current restrictions.. Söder stressed that if Germany opens “everything in one fell swoop, then within two, three weeks we will be in a situation maybe even worse than before.” He reiterated that making a mistake could cause a new wave of infections and concluded that the lockdown imposed at the end of 2020 will have to be extended.
Brussels, 7 February: Positive epidemiological trends in France continue
The number of confirmed new infections in France dropped on Sunday, making it the fourth consecutive day of decline, according to Reuters. The figure stood at 19,175 on Sunday, down from 20,586 on Saturday, according to Health Ministry records. At the same time, the number of patients treated for COVID-19 in hospitals increased from 27,369 on Saturday to 27,694 on Sunday, while the number of patients in intensive care rose from 3,225 to 3,272. Despite several medics insisting on a new nationwide lockdown, French authorities are opposing the idea, They maintain that the spread of coronavirus can be curbed through stricter rules on foreign travel and the evening curfew. Some health experts are concerned about the growing number of infections with the variant first detected in the UK. Epidemiologist Arnaud Fontanet predicted the new variant could account for the majority of new cases starting with March.
Brussels 8 February: Belgian restrictions continue until spring
Until the end of February, Belgian citizens and residents will not be allowed leave the country without presenting documentation showing a valid reason to travel. With an eye to the upcoming school holidays, the government has indicated that people face the risk of fines and being turned back at the border, should they attempt to travel solely for leisure purposes n the coming weeks. Next weekend, hairdressers will re-open after 16 weeks of closure. Zoos and recreational parks will also be permitted to re-open.
Despite pleas from restaurant and bar owners, food will be served as take-away only and bars will remain closed. The country’s health minister has ruled out fully opening the hospitality sector even in March. Meanwhile, the number of patients in intensive care due to corona has dropped drastically, as has the number of deaths attributed to the disease. Belgium’s residents still grapple with a 10pm curfew, which has been in effect since November, with no end in sight.
Brussels, 5 February: EC President laments bloc’s inertia and excessive optimism
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen lamented the bloc’s excessive optimism about the vaccination campaign and its inertia, DW reported Friday. “Of course, a country on its own can be a speed boat, the EU is more like a tanker,” she noted. The whole point of a joint coronavirus vaccine procurement scheme was to avoid competition between EU member states, which she acknowledged made the process slower. Von der Leyen insisted the bloc still aims to vaccinate 70% of the population by the end of the summer, while cautioning that further complications can be expected. MEP Manon Aubry, representing the left wing and far left group GUE/NGL, commended von der Leyen for appearing before MEPs, but stressed that “the Commission will have to do much more to rebuild its tarnished image and win back the confidence of EU citizens.” Her colleague Martin Schirdewan added “we need to see from the Commission a complete rethink about how it has approached the pandemic and greater sensitivity to the immense hardship ordinary Europeans are facing.”
Brussels, 5 February: France against new lockdown, several medics disagree
The French government is against imposing new lockdowns, while several medics disagree and are calling for additional restrictions to be imposed, Reuters reports. France is currently under curfew, with Prime Minister Jean Castex noting that that the situation is fragile, yet not so severe as to warrant a third lockdown. Frédéric Valletoux, head of the Hospital Federation of France, pointed out that he has been calling for a new lockdown and noted that the situation in hospitals in France remains under control. Karine Lacombe, head of infectious diseases at the Saint Antoine Hospital, noted that France is “still at a high plateau” and warned that “at one point it will be too high and, to bring it down, new restrictive measures will be inevitable.”
Brussels, 4 February: Britain says there are around 4,000 COVID variants around the world
Britain estimated on Thursday that there are around 4,000 variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 as the virus continues to spread and mutate, Reuters reports. Nadhim Zahawi, the UK Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for COVID-19 Vaccine Deployment, asserts it is highly unlikely that developed vaccines will fail to be effective against new mutations. At the same time, he points out that “all manufacturers, Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca and others, are looking at how they can improve their vaccine to make sure that we are ready for any variant.” The UK started trials on Thursday to assess the effectiveness of combining vaccines from US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and the British-Swedish AstraZeneca. Initial data is expected around June this year.
Brussels, 3 February: German study shows trained dogs can detect coronavirusHanover University of Veterinary Medicine has trained dogs to detect COVID-19 with a 94% accuracy rate, DW reported on Wednesday. Holger Volk, head of the Small Animal Clinic at the University, pointed out that “dogs can really sniff out people with infections and without infections, as well as asymptomatic and symptomatic COVID patients.” Volk stressed that the University’s study shows trained dogs accurately detected the presence of coronavirus in 94% of the cases. Minister-President of Lower Saxony Stephan Weil welcomed the study but noted the need for additional testing before deploying dogs to sniff out coronavirus. Trained dogs could be used to prevent the spread of the virus in large crowds at airports and sports arenas as well as mass gatherings. Finland started using dogs to detect the virus in September last year at the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport.
Brussels, 3 February: WHO investigation team visits virus lab in Wuhan
The investigation team led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) completed its visit to the Wuhan Institute of Virology on Wednesday as part of the search for the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, Reuters reports. While some scientists call on China to release data on coronavirus samples studied in the Institute in order to see if any compare with the one that caused the pandemic, the wire service report disclaims the laboratory origin hypothesis as a conspiracy theory. Meanwhile, China is pushing the hypothesis that the pandemic did not originate in the country, asserting it was imported on frozen food. The WHO points out that probe team members are confined to investigating what their Chinese hosts permit and that they are not allowed to have contact with community members due to health restrictions. The team has two weeks to conduct its inquiries, having had to spend two weeks in quarantine upon arrival in Wuhan.
Brussels, 2 February: Russian Sputnik V more than 91% effective
The Sputnik V vaccine developed in Russia is 91.6% effective against COVID-19 according to peer-reviewed, phase III trial results published in The Lancet general medical journal, Reuters reported on Tuesday. The vaccine was developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, with the late-stage trial results in line with data from earlier stages. Results are based on data from close to 20,000 volunteers. The trials in Moscow started in September last year. The Sputnik V is the fourth coronavirus vaccine to have late-stage results published in top peer-reviewed medical journals and the third with average efficacy of more than 90%. According to The Lancet summary, the vaccine is 91.8% effective in those aged 60 and over. Gamaleya noted on Tuesday that the vaccine is approved for storage in refrigerators, rather than freezers, which alleviates many logistical problems.
Brussels, 1 February: French restaurant owners favour civil disobedience despite government threats
Some French restaurant owners decided against dropping civil disobedience despite government threats to deprive them of aid, RFI reported on Monday. Proprietors had announced plans to re-open their establishments last week, when the government responded by threatening to cut off aid. Yesterday, the French Minister of the Economy, Finance and Recovery, Bruno Le Maire, observed that while “it’s extremely hard for restaurants, economically and in terms of morale,” this does not justify civil disobedience. Clearly disagreeing, restaurant owner Gérard Viau pointed out that “despite the threats from the government and the fact we know the gendarmes will come, at some point they have to stop treating us like idiots.” He cited the fact that big shops are allowed to stay open and are crowded as the reason why he has opted for civil disobedience.
Brussels, 1 February: UN pushes for discrimination based on sex
UN Under-Secretary-General, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive-Director of UN Women, asserted on Monday that countries should make appointments to top positions based on sex, Reuters reports. More women in leadership roles will lead to a stronger world after the coronavirus crisis, she maintained in an interview with the news agency, noting that equality of outcomes between the two sexes has not been achieved. Mlambo-Ngcuka observed that sex-based appointments are not picking up pace as quickly as she would like. She also asserted that non-white women want to see more people who look like them in top posts. Establishing quotas based on sex quotas would help push more women into politics, she claimed, noting that women tend not to focus on politics. She described sexual innuendo and body-shaming as forms of violence and said they should be criminalised. Mlambo-Ngcuka insists women should hold leading roles for the sake of inclusion. UN Women estimates that equality of outcomes between the sexes will not be achieved for 130 years at the current pace.
Brussels 1 February The EU’s Centre for Disease Control added a dark red zone to its existing categories of green, orange, red and grey in the weekly map published to show the incidence of COVID-19 cases. The latest colour code will apply to areas where the virus is present at high levels, as well as indicating the more infectious variants of concern. These are defined as areas where the 14-day cumulative COVID-19 case notification rate is 500 per 100 000 people or more.
EU countries should discourage all non-essential travel to red and dark red areas, while seeking to avoid disruptions to essential travel. Perrsons leaving an area classified as dark red should undergo a test for COVID-19 infection prior to arrival elsewhere and then enter quarantine or self-isolation. Similar measures could apply to areas with a high prevalence of variants of concern.
Given the increase in COVID-19 testing capacity, EU countries have the option to require travellers coming from orange, red and grey areas to do a test before departure. Transport workers and transport service providers should, in principle, not be required to undergo a test. Where a member states requires them to undergo a test, rapid antigen tests should be used.
According to the current state of EU rules, people who live in border regions and cross the border daily or frequently for work, study or family reasons should not be required to undergo testing or quarantine. If a testing requirement is introduced, the frequency of tests on such persons should be proportionate. EU countries follow the recommendation by the European Centre for Disease Control to avoid non-essential travel, given the fear of the new variants of corona spreading. In this way, EU countries aim to prevent the reintroduction of internal border controls.
Brussels, 31 January: EC President says AstraZeneca will deliver 40 million doses by April
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen noted on Sunday that the British-Swedish AstraZeneca pharmaceuticals company will deliver some 40 million coronavirus vaccine doses to the EU in the first quarter of this year, according to Reuters reporting. She pointed out that deliveries should start one week ahead of schedule, adding that the company is to expand its production capacities in the EU. AstraZeneca had originally committed to deliver at least 80 million vaccine doses to the bloc in the first quarter of the year, but earlier last month announced that it would be unable to make good on the deal because of production problems in its EU plants. This triggered a simmering dispute with EU authorities and the bloc, which flared up ever further when the company adjusted its delivery offer to 31 million doses last week.
Brussels, 1 February: German BioNTech and US Pfizer have promised to deliver up to 75 million more vaccine
German BioNTech and US Pfizer have promised to deliver up to 75 million more vaccine doses to the bloc in the second quarter of the year, according to BioNTech CFO Sierk Poetting, DW reported Monday. The two companies stated their plan to overcome production shortfalls by opening a new production facility in Marburg, Germany, this month. The facility should have an output of 750 million doses annually. The two companies are planning to make approximately 2 billion doses for the bloc by the end of the year, up from the originally planned 1.3 billion doses. The announcement comes before the meeting scheduled between Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and the heads of German states to discuss ways to improve Germany’s vaccination campaign. The EU has been struggling with vaccine rollouts because of shortages arising from production problems faced by the bloc’s designated suppliers, BioNTech and Pfizer as well as UK-Swedish AstraZeneca.
Brussels, 29 January: WHO team visits Wuhan hospital that treated early patients
The investigative team led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has visited the Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine in Wuhan, which treated some of the first coronavirus cases in late 2019, Reuters reports. “We are in the hospital that treated some of the first known cases of COVID-19, meeting with the actual clinicians and staff who did this work, having open discussions about the details of their work,” team member Peter Daszak noted. Chinese Communist Party-controlled media have been claiming the virus was imported from Europe on frozen foods and that the Fort Detrick US Army Medical Command installation was connected with the pandemic.
Brussels, 29 January: Still no agreement between EU and AstraZeneca on contract breachAstraZeneca offered earlier this week to deliver up to 39 million doses of its coronavirus vaccine to the EU in the first quarter this year, according to an unnamed EU official involved in talks with the pharmaceutical company, according to a Reuters report. The official said the offer was deemed unacceptable, and that the company had been reminded that it is contractually obliged to supply the bloc with at least 80 million doses by the start of the second quarter. AstraZeneca announced it would cut vaccine deliveries to the EU last week, citing production issues in Belgium. EU officials noted the company is planning to deliver 31 million doses to the bloc by the end of March. On Tuesday, AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot insisted that the company is under no legal obligation to deliver vaccines to the EU on a precise timetable. EC President Ursula von der Leyen stated on Friday that AstraZeneca has binding obligations and cannot make commitments with other clients at the expense of the bloc.
Brussels, 27 January: Norway to close borders to non-residents
The Prime Minister of Norway Erna Solberg announced Wednesday that the country would close its borders to all non-residents other than essential visitors, Reuters reports. “What we see is that the mutated virus has spread significantly in many countries that do not monitor the extent of mutations in the same way as Norway, Denmark and Britain do,” she stressed. Norway announced a lockdown of the capital region on Saturday after an outbreak of the coronavirus strain first observed in the UK was confirmed. Solberg noted that the number of coronavirus infections in Norway is in decline, with the new infection rate among the lowest in Europe according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
Brussels, 28 January: WHO investigators leave quarantine in WuhanThe investigation team lead by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that is to probe the origins of the coronavirus pandemic has left quarantine in Wuhan after two weeks in a local hotel, Reuters reports. While the WHO did not release details of the team’s itinerary, team leader Peter Ben Embarek noted back in November that the team would likely visit the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, the apparent origin of the virus. After leaving their hotel, team members boarded a bus, declining to speak to the press. The US has accused Chinese authorities of manipulating information relating to the pandemic’s origins. It has also been critical of the terms under which the WHO-led team’s visit is being conducted.
Brussels, 27 January: England to introduce mandatory quarantine
UK residents arriving back from coronavirus hotspots to England will have to quarantine in hotels according to the latest plans, BBC reports. The hotspots in question include southern Africa and Portugal, where a new variant of the coronavirus has been spreading. The Labour Party insists all arrivals should have to quarantine, with party leader Kier Starmer stressing the importance of stricter border controls. Senior ministers have agreed to expand the list of hotspots in the future as needed. Home Secretary Priti Patel pointed out that measures are always under review, indicating that the government would not shy away from taking further action with the aim of protecting the UK from the pandemic.
Brussels, 27 January: Economists expect COVID-19 response to suppress economic growth this year
A majority of economists who took part in a Reuters poll have predicted that the response to the coronavirus pandemic will suppress economic growth this year, the news agency reported today. The economists expect global GDP to return to pre-coronavirus crisis levels in two years. Approximately 500 economists from Asia, Europe and the Americas who took part in the poll neither changed nor downgraded growth outlooks compared to previous surveys. Aditya Bhave, global economist at the Bank of America, noted that “as vaccine rollouts begin the world over, we are racing against time to head off the impact of potentially more contagious strains of the coronavirus.” He warned “the biggest downside risk to the global economy is that vaccines prove to be ineffective against the new mutations.” He cautioned that the emergence of a strain that is vaccine-resistant could cost the global economy one quarter.
Brussels, 26 January: Germany opens first jail for quarantine violators
Germany has opened its first facility for detaining quarantine violators in Neumünster in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, DW reports. The facility is a repurposed part of a juvenile detention centre and comprises six rooms. Neumünster Council representative Sönke Schulz stressed that people who do not comply with quarantine orders put others at risk and pointed out the “infection protection act therefore rightly allows isolation in locked facilities as the last resort.” Schulz asserted that detention in the facility “should not really be any different from quarantining at home,” but violators will have to follow the orders of the guards and will be locked up. Most other German states have decided against setting up facilities for detaining quarantine violators.
Brussels, 26 January: South Africa rebukes wealthy countries for hoarding vaccines
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa rebuked wealthy countries for hoarding coronavirus vaccines at a virtual World Economic Forum meeting on Tuesday. He stressed the need for global coordination and cooperation amidst the pandemic, Reuters reports. Ramaphosa warned that some countries had acquired four times more vaccines than their populations actually required. “We are all not safe if some countries are vaccinating their people and other countries are not vaccinating”, he declared. Meanwhile, US Pfizer pharmaceuticals announced a temporary cut in vaccine deliveries to the EU this month and UK-Swedish AstraZeneca noted on Monday that there would be delays in deliveries to the EU. Germany’s Minister of Health Jens Spahn proposed a register of vaccine exports over delays in vaccine deliveries and other supply issues, in declaring that the bloc is not getting its fair share.
Brussels, 24 January: Curfew protests in the Netherlands turn violent
Protesters against the night-time curfew imposed in the Netherlands to control the coronavirus pandemic clashed with police in Amsterdam, Eindhoven and other cities, DW reported on Sunday. Police used dogs, batons and water cannon to disperse the protests as rioters set vehicles ablaze and looted shops near the main railway station in Eindhoven, according to Omroep Brabant reporting. Police noted more than 100 people were detained on Sunday. Authorities issued more than 3,600 fines on Saturday as the curfew came into force, with violators facing fines of 95 euro each. Protests come in the wake of the fall of the Dutch government earlier this month.
Brussels, 25 January: Ukraine lifts some coronavirus restrictions
Ukraine decided to reopen gyms, restaurants and schools on Monday, having closed them on 8 January to help curb the spread of coronavirus, Reuters reports. The number of daily new coronavirus cases in Ukraine has dropped significantly – from some 9,000 in early January to 2,516 on Monday. Minister of Healthcare, Maksym Stepanov, pointed out that “such statistics, which indicate the stabilisation of the situation, the improvement of which could be obtained only thanks to you, Ukrainians.” He pointed out that the Ministry will analyse the effects of the lockdown in the coming days, while underscoring his preference for a return to a localised approach to restrictions.
Brussels, 21 January: Netherlands to impose night-time curfew
The Dutch parliament has approved its first night-time curfew since WWII with the latest pandemic-control measure to go into effect from Saturday, Reuters reports. Due to stay in place until 9 February, curfew hours will be between 9 p.m. and 4.30 a.m. The only ones allowed to leave their homes during curfew will be people with medical emergencies, essential workers and those needing to walk their pets. Curfew violations will result in a fine of 95 euro. While infections in the Netherlands have been decreasing in the last three weeks or so, authorities have warned that without tighter restrictions, next month could see a new surge.
Brussels, 22 January: EU heads looking at stricter border rulesEuropean Council President Charles Michel noted after Thursday’s EU summit that additional restrictions should be imposed across the bloc in the coming days in order to discourage non-essential travel, RFI reports. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed the importance of avoiding unilateral border closures between EU member states if the bloc’s Common Market is to keep functioning. Closing the borders would not help in the fight against the pandemic, she observed, but it would cause severe damage to the EU economy. Von der Leyen also indicated that negative coronavirus test results could become mandatory for entering the EU from Sunday.
Brussels, 21 January: WB approves $34mn for vaccination campaign in Lebanon
The World Bank (WB) has approved a reallocation of US$ 34 million for the coronavirus vaccination campaign in Lebanon, Reuters reports. The decision to reallocate the funds from the existing Lebanon Health Resilience Project is the first WB-financed operation to finance procurement of coronavirus vaccines. The move should secure vaccinations for more than two million people and the first shots are to arrive early next month. The WB said that by protecting people, the vaccination campaign would help the economy to recover. Infection rates in Lebanon reached the highest levels in the region, with more than 6,000 new cases confirmed on Friday.
Brussels, 20 January: China criticises Western coronavirus vaccines
Chinese state-controlled media have been criticising Western coronavirus vaccines while promoting Chinese vaccines in the past week, Reuters reported on Wednesday. The reports from Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s outlets follow Western criticism of Chinese vaccines for a lack of data disclosure. One Chinese report claimed media in the US and the UK are propagandising on behalf of the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Reports warn that Pfizer is not a reliable supplier and add that Chinese vaccines are more affordable and accessible and that they are easier to transport. Approximately half of the reports pointed to instances where patients in Norway died after receiving vaccines developed by Pfizer and the German BioNTech biotech company. Norwegian authorities stressed earlier this week they have not found a causal link between vaccinations and deaths.
Brussels, 20 January: India starts exporting coronavirus vaccines
India exported the first batch of locally made coronavirus vaccines today, with the Maldives and Bhutan the first recipients, RFI reports. India’s move is seen partly as a push to increase its soft power and to challenge its rival China, which also supplies other countries with vaccines. Indian regulators approved two coronavirus vaccines this month — Covaxin developed by Bharat Biotech and Covishield developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca. After the Maldives and Bhutan, India will ship vaccines to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Seychelles. The country is planning to offer 20 million doses to countries in South Asia, according to Bloomberg reporting last week.
Brussels, 20 January: WHO notes the British strain of coronavirus has reached 60 countries
The World Health Organisation (WHO) warns the strain of coronavirus first identified in the UK has spread to at least 60 countries, 10 more than a week ago, according to RFI reporting. WHO added that the variant first identified in South Africa has now been confirmed in 23 countries, noting that it too is believed to be more transmissible. The global coronavirus death toll has exceeded two million and the total number of reported cases is approaching 100 million, according to AFP.
Brussels, 18 January: Germany to hold quarantine breakers in detention centres
Some German states could detain people who refuse quarantine and keep them in detention centres, according to new regional regulations, the Telegraph reported on Monday. Saxony has confirmed the plan to detain quarantine breakers in a section of a refugee camp which is to be constructed next week. Local authorities say the new facility will only be used for detaining repeat quarantine breakers. According to Germany’s Welt daily, three other states have built or are building similar facilities. Baden-Württemberg plans to detain such offenders in police-guarded rooms at two hospitals, while Schleswig-Holstein will use a part of a juvenile detention centre. MP Joana Cotar of the Alternative for Germany party criticised authorities in Saxony for “reading too much Orwell.”
Brussels, 19 January: WHO head criticises rich countries for hoarding vaccines
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has criticised wealthy nations for buying up and hoarding coronavirus vaccines. He told the WHO Executive Board on Monday that this would prolong the pandemic and that the poorest countries would be left to pay the price, according to DW reporting. He criticised pharmaceutical companies for going after regulatory approvals rather than global approval through the WHO, adding that their prime motivation was profit. Ghebreyesus warned that plans to start delivering vaccines to some of the poorest countries in February are in jeopardy and that hopes of ending the pandemic quickly were fading.
Brussels, 17 January: Thousands protest against lockdown in Amsterdam
Several thousand people protested in Amsterdam against the nationwide lockdown in the Netherlands imposed with the aim of controlling the coronavirus pandemic, Reuters reported on Sunday. Riot police dispersed the protest with water cannon, which was unauthorised as the authorities rejected the application to hold the demonstration on the Museum Square. The Dutch government ordered schools and most shops to close in December as part of efforts aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus, extending the lockdown last week by at least three more weeks.
Brussels, 17 January: Portugal’s Health Minister warns health system is strained
Portugal’s Minister of Health Marta Temido warned on Sunday the health system is under extreme pressure from the surge in coronavirus cases, according to Reuters reporting. According to Health Ministry data, Portugal’s health system can accommodate 672 patients in intensive care units (ICUs), with the Directorate-General of Health noting the number of people in ICUs reached 647 on Sunday. The Portuguese Association of Hospital Administrators warned the number of COVID-19 patients who need hospitalisation will likely increase significantly this week. Daniel Ferro, director of St. Mary’s Hospital in Lisbon, warned the hospital is “already treating patients beyond our installed capacity” and concluded that more hospitals are in the same situation.
Brussels, 14 January: Russia plans to submit Sputnik V vaccine for approval in EU
Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) CEO Kirill Dmitriev announced Russia will submit the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine for approval in the EU next month, Reuters reported on Thursday. Dmitriev said regulators in nine countries are expected to approve the vaccine this month. He added that it has already been approved for use in Argentina, Belarus and Serbia. Peer-reviewed studies are to be released soon, he noted. These would demonstrate the high efficiency of the vaccine, which is to be produced in seven countries. Russia has the fourth highest number of coronavirus cases in the world and is planning to launch its mass vaccination campaigns next week.
Brussels, 15 January: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said he hoped the National Institute of Pharmacy and Nutrition would decide on the use of the Chinese Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine in the coming days, Reuters reports. Having criticising the EU’s centralised procurement scheme as too slow, Hungary yesterday announced it had reached an agreement with Sinopharm to buy its vaccine. According to a poll conducted by the Hungarian Central Statistical Office, willingness to get a coronavirus vaccine has increased, with 27% of respondents determined to get a shot. Orbán insisted that Hungary’s capacity for administering vaccinations far exceeds the amount of doses available from the EU.
Brussels, 14 January: Denmark has vaccinated about 2% of its population
Denmark tops the list of EU member states with regard to vaccinations, having given coronavirus shots to some 2% of its population. Health workers and the elderly should be vaccinated by April, according to health authorities, with shots to be made available to the rest of the population after that. Søren Brostrøm, head of the Danish Health Authority, notes that other bodies are involved in the vaccination campaign and adds “we have a really good and well-functioning collaboration with the regions, the municipalities and the general practitioners on the practical planning of the vaccinations.” Danes strongly support the vaccination campaign, he noted, more so than citizens of other European countries.
Brussels, 13 January: Restrictions imposed in different EU member states
Authorities in the Netherlands decided on Monday to keep schools and stores closed for an additional three weeks, having tightened restrictions in December. German authorities have closed many shops, schools and kindergartens. They are to remain closed at least until the end of the month. Italy has closed schools, bars and stores in areas with the highest infection rates. It has vaccinated more than 800,000 people thus far. In Ireland, people are not allowed to visit the homes of others, non-essential businesses are closed and the number allowed to attend weddings has been limited to six. Sweden is struggling with infection rates greater than 500 per 100,000 people and authorities may use new powers secured with the passage of new regulations last week to close shopping malls and gyms.
Brussels, 13 January: Germany could extend lockdown beyond February
Germany’s Health Minister, Jens Spahn, announced on Wendesday that coronavirus restrictions might need to be extended beyond February and that people need to adhere to the measures imposed if the pandemic is to be controlled, DW reports. “The numbers of infections and deaths are still too high and we need to reduce them,” Spahn declared, noting that the government should be able to offer vaccinations to everybody by summer. It would require several months for the vaccination campaign to yield results, he cautioned, so it might not be possible to ease all restrictions by the start of February.
Brussels, 12 January: EMA could approve Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine this month
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) announced on Tuesday that it could approve the coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford and AstraZeneca by 29 January if “the data submitted on the quality, safety and efficacy of the vaccine are sufficiently robust and complete.” The EMA has approved the vaccines developed by US Pfizer and German BioNTech, as well as the vaccine developed by US Moderna, for use across the bloc. Thus far, the EU has closed six contracts for up to 2 billion vaccine doses for the bloc’s estimated population of 450 million.
Brussels, 12 January: EU concludes preliminary talks with Valneva on its vaccine
The EU notes that it has wrapped up preliminary talks with the French Valneva biotech company on the supply of its coronavirus vaccine candidate, Reuters reports. The bloc is planning to purchase up to 60 million doses of the vaccine, making Valneva the eighth company to negotiate the sale of vaccines with the EU. “The envisaged contract with Valneva would provide for the possibility for all EU member states to purchase together 30 million doses, and they could further purchase up to 30 million more doses,” an EU Commission statement notes. “If clinical development is successful, an initial approval may be granted in the second half of 2021,” Valneva announced.
Brussels, 12 January: Merkel expects lockdown to last until early AprilGermany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel expects the lockdown in Germany to last until early April, according to participants of the meeting of lawmakers in Merkel’s party, Reuters reports. The German daily Bild reports Merkel was concerned that “if we don’t manage to stop this British virus, then we will have 10 times the number of cases by Easter.” However, three unnamed participants in the meeting note that Merkel made no explicit comment about extending the lockdown. Nor did she warn of a potential tenfold increase in the number of cases. Germany imposed tougher restrictions last week, extending the lockdown until the end of the month.
WHO on herd immunity
Brussels, 11 January: Dale Fisher, the World Health Organisation’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network chair, warns the vaccination campaigns will not provide herd immunity in many countries this year, Reuters reports. He points out poor countries have limited access to coronavirus vaccines and adds that mutations of the virus could exacerbate the problem. Noting that some countries will likely achieve herd immunity this year, Fisher stresses this will not help to normalise the situation, especially with regard to border controls. “We know we need to get to herd immunity and we need that in a majority of countries, so we are not going to see that in 2021,” he concluded.
Brussels, 11 January: Germany tightens restrictions
Stricter measures aimed at controlling the coronavirus pandemic are in force in all of Germany’s federal states as of today, Monday, DW reports. The restrictions put in place on 16 December failed to yield desired results, with German authorities extending some measures and imposing additional ones. Minister of Health Jens Spahn noted the tighter lockdown will cause difficulties for many in Germany, but stressed the importance of curbing the spread of coronavirus. Several German states imposed the new restrictions last week, with authorities in Saxony announcing the new measures would remain in force at least until 7 February.
Overview of the Commission’s response
Brussels 8 January: The Commission spent hours today Friday fending off criticisms about its COVID-19 vaccines procurement. Commission President von der Leyen, a medical doctor by training, triumphantly announced how the Commission has upped its bid on the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine to 600 million doses, with additional purchase options running from the second quarter of this year. The Commission has come under heavy criticism after vaccination programmes were rolled out in both the UK and the US sooner than in the EU, where the negotiations on the buying of vaccines have been centralised to Brussels.
Earlier in the week, the Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer defended the EU executive by saying that a total of two billion vaccine doses have been secured (so far only the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines have been approved by the European Medicines Agency). From today, the total would amount to 2.3 billion doses with the EU having an option on an additional 300 million from future production. This way, about half of Pfizer/BioNTech’s global output would be going to the EU. The EU’s medicines’ regulator EMA also separately authorised the use of six doses from every vial of the vaccine, which requires exceptionally low temperatures for safe storage, a key factor complicating its distribution, as opposed to the five does previously foreseen. This would increase overall availability by 20%.
Belgium’s lockdown continues
Across the road from the Commission’s Brussels Berlaymont headquarters, the Belgian government and chief virologists convened in a highly anticipated meeting among those hoping for prevailing sanitary measures to be revoked.
The country’s restaurant and hospitality sector is largely at a halt, with bars closed since the beginning of November, and restaurants only partially opened and then solely for delivery. The country’s hairdressers have been protesting the measures affecting the sector since November, as salons have to remain closed while haircuts increasingly are offered to clients at home. The situation is equally dire for both the culture and events sector, but so far no roll-back of the measures is in sight, despite testing figures showing less infections and hospitals receiving fewer COVID patients, with 382 remaining in intensive care.
Sweden’s Parliament approves a new pandemic law
Stockholm 8 January Meanwhile in Sweden, parliament has adopted a new pandemic law, which would enable the closing of businesses and public transport. The Swedish government refrained from such measures for most of last year with Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén urging Swedes to think for themselves and act responsibly. Swedish legislation has not allowed the government to enact a general shutdown of society in peacetime and any coercive measures are viewed with scepticism among the public. However, with COVID-related deaths on the increase, the government has come under pressure to act, with 76 COVID-19 deaths yesterday, and a drastically higher death toll being registered than in other Scandinavian countries.
Coronavirus vaccine delivery “slower than expected”
Helsinki In 8 January Finland, the government is upset with the EU’s promised delivery of vaccine doses from within the Pfizer/BioNTech quota. For January, Finland’s share of the distribution would be as little as a shipment of 50,000 doses, against a population of 5.5 million. The Finnish minister for public health has written to Commissioner Stella Kyriakides to express her dismay. She notes that the AstraZeneca vaccine developed in cooperation with the University of Oxford, which is already in use from this week in the UK, has yet to be approved for the EU market. The Finnish government could have it approved by the country’s own medicines agency Fimea, but fearing that the vaccine has not been sufficiently tested on certain age groups, the government has resolved to wait for EMA’s approval. The number of new infections in the country remains low, espcially in the sparsely inhabited regions of the country’s north.
European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved the coronavirus vaccine by Moderna
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has approved the coronavirus vaccine developed by Moderna, making it the second such vaccine approved in the EU, RFI reports. Following a quality assessment, the EMA notes it has approved the vaccine for use on people aged over 18. The bloc has ordered 160 million doses of the vaccine, which are to be used for the vaccination of 80 million people. Two doses of the vaccine need to be administered 28 days apart and the vaccine is based on mRNA technology, similar to that developed by Pfizer and BioNTech and approved last year.
European countries to be flexible about the administering doses of the vaccine
World Health Organisation (WHO) Europe head, Hans Kluge, is calling on European countries to be flexible about the period between administering the first and second doses of the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, Reuters reports. Kluge stresses the importance of finding a balance between protecting as many people as possible and making the most of limited vaccine supplies. “It is important that such a decision represents a safe compromise between the limited global production capacity at the moment, and the imperative for governments to protect as many people as possible while reducing the burden of any subsequent wave on the health systems.”
WHO investigators will not be allowed to look into the outbreak in China
Beijing is stepping up efforts to control the narrative around the emergence of the coronavirus as a World Health Organisation (WHO) team prepares to visit China, Reuters reported yesterday, Tuesday. While Hua Chunying, head of the Foreign Ministry Information Department, announced China would welcome the WHO team, experts suspect the investigators will not be allowed to look into the outbreak freely because Beijing is anxious to avoid any blame for the pandemic. However, China released a study last week that indicates infection rates in Wuhan were significantly higher than Chinese authorities originally acknowledged. Raina MacIntyre, head of the Kirby Institute’s Biosecurity Program, predicts some hypotheses will not be investigated for political issues, notably the contention that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. “I think it is unlikely all viruses in the lab at the time will be made available to the team,” she said in suggesting that the investigation would not get to the bottom of the outbreak.
Belgium employers abide by the rules and favour teleworking
Belgium’s labour inspectorate deployed some 500 inspectors this week to make sure that employers abide by the rules and favour teleworking, when at all possible. The inspections will be carried out in companies and in public institutions to ensure that staff can work remotely and that all sanitary measures are followed in the workplace. The pandemic rules were tightened last month with a requirement for people to work from home. The Belgian police keep a close eye on the country’s borders, with enhanced inspection of in-coming train traffic mostly from France and the UK. Visitors are required to take a COVID test in advance, whereas residents should submit to two PCR tests upon return from a high-risk zone. All entrants have to fill out a form answering detailed questions as to their last whereabouts when returning from any stay abroad that lasted for more than two days. Cars are checked at the border with France, even though cross-border traffic is facilitated. Arriving passengers at airports and train stations have to prove they have filled out the requisite documents, unless they can prove that theirs was a short stay abroad only.
Scotland announces new lockdown
First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon announces a new lockdown that includes the legal requirement for people in Level 4 areas to stay at home in January, Sky reports today. “It is no exaggeration to say that I am more concerned about the situation we face now than I have been at any time since March last year,” she said. Sturgeon said it was vital to limit contacts between households if the pandemic is to be brought under control. She predicted the healthcare system could be overwhelmed in three or four weeks unless the government takes action. The number of new confirmed infections in Scotland dropped on Monday from the previous day’s figures, as did the daily test positivity rate.
Italy to relax restrictions on weekdays
Italy has decided to relax restrictions on weekdays, with lockdown rules due to expire on Thursday, Reuters reports today. Lawmakers are agreed to return to the three-tier system of restrictions which allows local application of measures. However, bars and restaurants are to close this weekend in all parts of Italy. The government has decided to delay the reopening of ski resorts, originally planned for 8 January, until 18 January, stressing this is in line with requests by local authorities based on advice of experts. The number of daily cases dropped from about 40,000 in November to significantly below 20,000. There have been close to 76,000 deaths since February last year.
Sweden fears a severe corona wave this week
Swedish head virologist Anders Tegnell, known for practising a different approach to curb the pandemic without lockdowns or mask-wearing, is concerned that yet another corona wave will hit this week when Swedes return to work after the holidays. Both the British variant of the mutated virus as well as the South African mutation have been detected in the country. Among the Nordic countries, Sweden is worst hit by COVID-19, registering over 9,000 deaths. Denmark, meanwhile, has entered its highest level of pandemic alert, banning assemblies of more than five people and further limiting travel. In Finland, the virus has hit mostly the southern part of the country, with restrictions on assembly extended until the end of January.
BioNTech founders warn of vaccine supply gaps
BioNTech CEO Uğur Şahin warns of gaps in the supply of coronavirus vaccine due to lack of other approved vaccines, Reuters reports. The company is negotiating with the EU Commission about increasing production of the vaccine. Şahin notes the planned production facility in Marburg, Germany could turn out 250 million doses in the first six months of 2021. Germany’s Minister of Health Jens Spahn announced the authorities would do whatever they can to ensure a quick start to operations at the facility. He called on the European Medicines Agency to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine as soon as possible.
Italy delays reopening ski slopes to Jan. 18 as COVID cases stay high
Italy’s Ministry of Health delayed the reopening of ski resorts, originally planned for Thursday, 7 January, until 18 January, Reuters reports. Italy closed its resorts for the Christmas and New Year holidays, as did many other EU member states, in a bid to control the pandemic. The decision to push back the reopening date indicates Italian authorities are worried the skiing season could help infection rates to grow. The Health Ministry stressed the decision is in line with requests by local authorities and takes account of the advice of health experts. The number of daily cases in Italy has halved from about 40,000 in November to some 20,000 at the start of 2021.
EU to buy extra 100 million doses of Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the bloc will buy an additional 100 million doses of the vaccine developed by US Pfizer and German BioNTech, Reuters reported today. This will bring the total number of doses the EU will buy from the two pharmaceutical companies to 300 million. The announcement follows unexpected delays in clinical trials of some vaccine candidates ordered by the bloc. The With a total population of about 450 million, the EU has booked close to 1.3 billion vaccines with options to buy an additional 660 million.
AstraZeneca vaccine not ready for quick European approval, watchdog official says
European Medicines Agency (EMA) Deputy Executive Director Noël Wathion warns the EMA is unlikely be able in January to approve the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca, Reuters reports today. Interviewed byHet Nieuwsblad, Wathion points out “they have not even filed an application with us yet” and notes that the available data is “not even enough to warrant a conditional marketing licence.” UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock says AstraZeneca has submitted a full data package on the vaccine to the UK regulator.
Pfizer to complete supply of COVID-19 vaccines to EU by September
EU Commission notes the initial 200 million doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech are to be distributed across the EU by September 2021, Reuters reports. The vaccine is the only one approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) thus far. Most member states started their respective vaccination campaigns on Sunday. The EU, with a population of about 450 million, has signed advance purchase agreements with several pharmaceutical companies for close to two billion doses in total. The EMA is testing other vaccines. The Moderna vaccine could be approved on 6 January and the agency could start processing applications from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson in the first quarter of 2021.
Europe rolls out mass vaccination campaign, but many are not convinced
The French Public Health Agency notes that about 40% of the population plans to get vaccinated. EU leaders are promoting vaccination campaigns as the best chance of securing a return to normalcy next year. In doing so, they are attempting to face down high levels of scepticism towards the vaccine. Olivier Véran, French Minister of Solidarity and Health, points out that France might have to impose a third lockdown if negative epidemiological trends do not reverse after the holiday season, RFI reports. President Emmanuel Macron is to head a defence council meeting tomorrow, Tuesday, to assess France’s situation.
Mutated COVID variant reaches France, Spain and Sweden
Health authorities in France, Spain and Sweden have confirmed cases of the new coronavirus variant from the UK. French authorities say laboratories are processing tests from several people potentially infected with the new strain of coronavirus. In Besides the three, cases of the new variant have been confirmed in Australia, Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands. As experts suspect the new variant is more contagious. By way of response, some 50 countries have limited travel from the UK.
Europe begins to launch COVID-19 vaccinations
Brussels, 27 December: Hungary and Slovakia launched vaccination campaigns on Saturday, one day before Germany, France, Spain and several other EU member states. The French government plans to vaccinate about 1 million people in January and February, followed by an additional 14 to 15 million between March and June. Spanish authorities confirmed plans to start vaccinations on Sunday, in coordination with other EU member states. Meanwhile, Germany announced plans to deliver more than 1.3 million doses to local authorities before the end of this year, and expects to deliver some 700,000 does per week in the coming year. Irish authorities announced the start of vaccinations for Tuesday, one day earlier than planned.
Pubs and restaurants to close on Christmas Eve
Ireland announces closing pubs, restaurants and some shops on Christmas Eve and keeping them closed until early March in order to curb the spread of coronavirus, according to a government announcement today, Tuesday. Prime Minister Micheál Martin notes it is safer to assume the new strain of the virus isolated in the UK has reached Ireland, while stressing that as yet there is no evidence that it has. The new restrictions are to be reviewed on 12 January, with Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar advising businesses to operate under the assumption that reopening will come at the end of February or early March.
EU urges countries to lift UK travel bans
The EU Commission called on member states to lift travel restrictions to the UK on Tuesday, after many countries had imposed travel bans due to concerns over a new strain of coronavirus. While the Commission recommends the lifting of travel bans, member states may set their own rules. It points out that travel should be allowed with testing or self-isolation measures in place, but stresses EU member states should discourage non-essential travel.
Rapid COVID tests rolled out across EU
With the approach of Christmas, the Commission has signed a contract with pharmaceutical companies Abbott and Roche for 20 million rapid antigen tests worth up to €100 million, financed by EU emergency funds. From early 2021, these tests will be made available to EU countries, as part of the EU’s strategy to enhance COVID-19 testing.
Rapid tests are cheaper and provide results quicker than the RT-PCR test, which is still the most reliable testing method. The Commission is instructing EU countries to use rapid antigen tests to further strengthen the overall testing capacity, especially since testing remains a key to controlling and mitigating the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Also, the rapid tests should only be taken by trained healthcare personnel. The quick tests can be used for population-wide screening in epidemiological situations or areas where the proportion of test positivity is high, but most positive results would be still be followed up by another test.
WHO in contact with UK over new coronavirus mutation
World Health Organisation (WHO) notes Sunday it is in contact with British officials and is keeping a close eye on the new strain of coronavirus, which apparently spreads more rapidly. No evidence suggests the new mutation reacts differently to vaccines. Nor is it believed to be more deadly. Besides the UK, the new variant has been detected in Australia, Denmark and the Netherlands. EU member states imposed temporary bans on travel from the UK and the bloc announced discussing a more coordinated response later today, Monday.