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November 11, 2020

Coronavirus vaccine results fuel hopes for return to normal


November 11, 2020

WASHINGTON: Hugely promising results from a coronavirus vaccine trial fuelled optimism around the world on Tuesday, even as tighter restrictions were imposed in Europe and the Middle East to try and stem the worst pandemic in a century.

The vaccine news brought some relief from an otherwise grim picture worldwide, which included the death of veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat from coronavirus complications at the age of 65.

Stocks in some of the industries hit hardest by travel curbs, social distancing and lockdowns rebounded on hopes that the world may return to normal, after pharma giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech announced Monday that their vaccine candidate was 90 percent effective in preventing Covid-19.

A vaccine is seen as the best hope to break the cycle of deadly virus surges and severe restrictions across much of the world since Covid-19 first emerged in China late last year and unleashed devastation on the global economy. “Investors have every right to be more bullish,” said Russ Mould, investment director at AJ Bell, an online stockbroker, calling it “potential game-changing news”.

Pfizer and BioNTech said they could pass the final hurdles for a US rollout this month, and could supply up to 50 million doses globally this year and up to 1.3 billion next year.

The scientific community reacted positively but some pointed out that data from the ongoing trial was still needed for review, including the ages of the participants.

The Pfizer candidate also needs to be stored in specialist deep freezers, creating a potential supply chain complication, particularly for poorer nations in warmer climates. The vaccine candidate is one of more than 40, but no other has yet made similar claims about effectiveness.

Brazil’s health regulator announced Monday it had suspended clinical trials of another vaccine -- one of the most advanced candidates -- being developed by China’s Sinovac after an “adverse incident” involving a volunteer recipient.

The novel coronavirus has infected close to 51 million people worldwide, with more than 1.2 million deaths. On Tuesday, 6,867 new deaths were recorded worldwide, with the highest daily tolls in France, Spain and the United States.

The US remains the hardest-hit nation at more than 10 million cases and nearly 240,000 deaths, and the pandemic was one of the top issues for voters in this month’s presidential election. Joe Biden, who had slammed President Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis, spared no time in announcing a Covid-19 taskforce on Monday after being declared the winner of the election. “We’re still facing a very dark winter,” Biden said.

Trump had clashed repeatedly with his own government experts, often refusing to back restrictions or even wear a mask in public. After the Pfizer announcement, he claimed -- without evidence -- that the news was delayed until after the election to damage him.

There was a separate breakthrough when the US Food and Drug Administration on Monday granted emergency approval to a synthetic antibody treatment developed by the pharma company Eli Lilly.

Bamlanivimab, which was shown to reduce the risk of hospitalisation and emergency room visits, is the first major drug to be approved that was designed specifically for the coronavirus.

Rising infection and death rates have made Europe the current focal point of the pandemic and governments have struggled to cope.

In Italy, virus restrictions were increased in five regions on Tuesday meaning that a total of seven of Italy’s 20 regions are now “orange” zones. Another four regions are subject to even tighter “red” restrictions, with most shops, bars and restaurants shut and residents’ movements restricted.

Hungary, one of the hardest-hit countries in terms of deaths in proportion to the population, has also announced new national restrictions to come into force on Wednesday.

In Greece, the government stopped supermarkets from selling “non-essential goods” in order to avoid unfair competition against smaller shops that have been forced to close, following a similar move in France.

In the Middle East, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister on Tuesday announced a fresh two-week lockdown despite a grinding economic crisis that has already battered businesses.

“We’ve reached a stage of critical danger as private and public hospitals don’t have the capacity to receive severe cases,” Hassan Diab said in a televised address.

The region was also mourning the death of Erekat -- a long-time architect of plans to end the conflict with Israel through the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the passing of “a brother and friend... a great loss for Palestine and our people”.

Meanwhile, a leading scientific adviser to the British government said on Tuesday he expects several coronavirus vaccines to have been approved by early 2021, allowing life to begin to return to normal.

John Bell, professor of medicine at Oxford University, told lawmakers that Monday’s announcement by US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer that its vaccine candidate was effective in treating patients was likely just the start.

Bell, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said the news signalled other leading potential vaccines in late-stage trials could prove similarly effective.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we hit the new year with two or three vaccines all of which could be distributed,” he told a parliamentary hearing.

“I’m quite optimistic of getting enough vaccinations done in the first quarter of next year that by spring things will start to look much more normal than they do now.” Bell added he believed there was a 70 to 80 percent chance of that scenario unfolding.