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AFP
February 18, 2021

UN urges global vaccine effort

World

AFP
February 18, 2021

United Nations, United States: United Nations chief Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday that the world "urgently needs a global vaccination plan" to stop wealthy countries leaving poorer nations behind in the coronavirus fightback, while the US climbed back aboard at the World Health Organisation bringing $200 million in dues.

"All those with the required power, scientific expertise and production and financial capacities" should join a worldwide vaccine scheme, Guterres told the UN Security Council, adding that the G20 group of major economies would enjoy UN support if it steps forward to lead the effort.

At least 186.5 million doses of anti-Covid vaccines have been injected in 102 countries and territories around the world, according to an AFP tally based on official sources as of 1700 GMT on Wednesday. But Guterres said 75 percent of those administered so far had been in just 10 nations, while 130 countries have had no vaccinations at all.

Without cooperation, "new variants could become more transmissible, more deadly and, potentially, threaten the effectiveness of current vaccines and diagnostics" with global repercussions, he added.

As the US returns to another UN body, the World Health Organisation, in a reversal of former president Donald Trump´s plan to withdraw, Secretary of State Andrew Blinken said Washington would pay in $200 million (166 million euros) by the end of the month.

The US is "fulfilling our financial obligations" and showing "renewed commitment to ensuring the WHO has the support it needs," Blinken said. The US, historically the WHO´s largest donor, would also offer "significant financial support" to the body´s Covax vaccine distribution plan for the poorest countries, he added.

Guterres´ appeal came as the European Union struck a deal for up to 300 million more coronavirus shots from US pharma firm Moderna. European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said that while the bloc has 2.6 billion doses on order -- far more than needed for its 450 million people -- excess shots would go to neighbouring countries and serve as insurance in case some are less effective against new virus variants.

Meanwhile Japan and South Africa kicked off their first rounds of vaccinations targeting health workers. "This is a new era for us," said South Africa´s President Cyril Ramaphosa after receiving his jab.

Japan hopes its rollout will build confidence five months ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. In Taiwan, health minister Chen Shih-chung said in a radio interview that a crucial deal to acquire the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had failed "at the final step" of negotiations.

"We believed there was political pressure," he said. "The deal fell through... because someone doesn´t want Taiwan to be too happy." Chen added that he could not confirm whether China had leant on the firm to block a contract with the island, which Beijing considers part of its territory.

US top diplomat Blinken also swiped at China at the UN, saying "all countries must make available all data from the earliest days of any outbreak" -- a veiled renewal of US criticism that China has not cooperated with a WHO probe into how the virus first emerged in 2019 in Wuhan. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned in his remarks against "attempts to politicise the pandemic".

With infections topping 109 million and more than 2.4 million deaths, the pandemic has sparked lockdowns and curfews that have devastated the global economy. Spain reported on Wednesday that its national debt had spiked to 1.31 trillion euros last year.

In Italy, newly installed Prime Minister Mario Draghi said the country had "the possibility -- or rather the responsibility -- to start a new reconstruction" like that following World War II, after a pandemic that has killed more than 94,000 Italians so far.

For ordinary people, the pandemic continues to upend daily life. Latvian hairdressers have taken to meeting clients in snowy forests or on the ice of frozen lakes to get around infection control restrictions.

"I can´t wait any longer, because the monthly payments for the apartment and the loan have to be made now," hairdresser Zane Melnace told Polish media, saying she had officially labelled the sessions "outdoor training".

And in Ireland, churches marked Ash Wednesday by handing out packets of "takeaway" cinders for worshippers to perform the Christian ritual at home. "It´s very unusual but it has to be done, because it´s part of who I am," said worshipper Susanne Glennon, after marking her forehead with a cross in a church car park near Dublin.