THE HAGUE: The European Union started the approval process for its third vaccine on Tuesday after WHO scientists warned that herd immunity from coronavirus was unlikely this year even with mass inoculation schemes.
The 27-nation EU -- under fire for lengthy approval processes and slow national rollouts of drugs -- promised an "accelerated timeline" after confirming drug company AstraZeneca had applied for approval for the jab it developed with Oxford University.
The EU’s medicines agency said a decision would still not come before January 29, even though the drug is already being used in countries including Britain. And even with mass vaccinations, World Health Organisation scientists warned that coverage would still not be wide enough for population-level immunity this year.
"We are not going to achieve any levels of population immunity or herd immunity in 2021," said WHO’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan of a disease that has already infected more than 90 million people worldwide and killed almost two million.
The United States remains the worst affected country, posting daily death tolls in multiple thousands, but European hospitals are increasingly warning of stretched resources and Asian countries are also facing upsurges.
With recriminations already flying over America’s longer-term handling of the virus, lawmakers voiced fury on Tuesday over the actions of some of their peers during last week’s ructions in Washington DC.
Congress members were forced to hunker down in secure rooms as supporters of President Donald Trump marauded through the corridors of the Capitol building, and some have now tested positive for coronavirus and squarely blamed their colleagues.
"Many Republicans still refused to take the bare minimum Covid-19 precaution and simply wear a damn mask in a crowded room during a pandemic -- creating a superspreader event on top of a domestic terrorist attack," said Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who has since tested positive.
US President-elect Joe Biden, who has pledged to devote all available resources to fight the pandemic, received his second vaccine dose on Monday of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab -- the first to be approved in Western countries.
German firm BioNTech said it could produce millions more doses than originally expected this year, but warned that Covid-19 was likely become an endemic disease and vaccines would be needed to fight new variants.
The sporting world provided some respite from the continuing cycle of glum news, with England beginning a cricket Test match in Sri Lanka on Thursday, 10 months after a tour was called off.
It was bitter-sweet for one England fan, who has been waiting in Sri Lanka for 10 months for the match to start, only to miss out on the live action because it will be played behind closed doors.
"I’ve been in Sri Lanka the whole time on blind faith, on a wing and a prayer," Rob Lewis, who has been working remotely as a web designer and DJ-ing at a local bar in Colombo, told AFP. But elsewhere in the sporting world, shredded schedules and crisis meetings were still the order of the day.
Tokyo Olympics organisers were forced to dismiss speculation that this summer’s event was about to be cancelled, as polls showed public support declining. "I want to say that we are not thinking that way at all, and that these reports are wrong," said Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto.
Formula One announced a major reshuffle of next season’s races on Tuesday, shifting the season-opening Australia Grand Prix from March to November and postponing the China race indefinitely.
As sports organisers plan their medium-term future, environmentalists are raising the alarm over the pandemic’s longer term impacts. Discarded face masks -- littering waterways and beaches the world over -- can take hundreds of years to decompose and wreck animal habitats, campaigners warn.
"Face masks aren’t going away any time soon," Ashley Fruno of animal rights group PETA told AFP. "But when we throw them away, these items can harm the environment and the animals who share our planet."
Meanwhile, Chinese authorities sealed off a city of almost five million people and imposed strict travel restrictions on several others on Tuesday as they worked to quash a number of Covid-19 clusters near Beijing.
The country had largely curbed the spread of the coronavirus, which first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019, with small outbreaks swiftly snuffed out using mass testing, local lockdowns and travel restrictions.
But Hebei province in northern China has reported 560 new cases in recent weeks -- 234 of which are asymptomatic -- sparking a raft of new lockdowns and restrictions. Residents of Langfang, a manufacturing hub around 55 kilometres south of Beijing, have been banned from leaving the city for seven days unless absolutely necessary.
"All family gatherings should be cancelled...all marriages postponed and funerals simplified until the epidemic situation has subsided," the Langfang city government said in a statement. Officials will now rush to test all 4.9 million residents in two days, the local health bureau said, after one case was discovered in Langfang’s Gu’an county.
Authorities last week launched a mass testing drive and closed transport links, schools and shops in the neighbouring city of Shijiazhuang -- the epicentre of the latest outbreak -- with its 11 million residents required to undergo two rounds of testing.
Neighbouring Xingtai, home to seven million people, has also been locked down since last Friday. The worsening situation prompted Hebei province’s local government to indefinitely postpone an annual legislative meeting that was due to be held this month.
A steady trickle of new coronavirus cases has surfaced in China’s northern provinces since October, prompting strict restrictions despite the number of infections being small compared to outbreaks in many other countries.
The curbs come ahead of February’s Lunar New Year, when hundreds of millions criss-cross China to visit family and friends, and authorities are anxious to contain the spread of the virus before the massive annual migration.
Suihua city in Heilongjiang province -- home to over 5.2 million -- was sealed off on Monday after the city reported one confirmed case and 45 asymptomatic cases. Shanxi province has also limited internal travel and rolled out mass testing, after a patient from neighbouring Hebei province was reported to have travelled there.
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