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.