Europe begins vaccine rollout as new virus strain spreads fears
A swath of EU nations begin vaccinating their most vulnerable groups on Dec. 27 as a reputedly more contagious coronavirus variant spread internationally and the WHO warned that the current pandemic would not be the last.
First doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived in EU countries including hard-hit Italy, Spain and France on Dec. 26, ready for distribution to retirement homes and care staff.
The approval and roll-out of vaccines has boosted hopes that 2021 could bring a respite from the pandemic, which has killed more than 1.7 million people since emerging in China late last year.
However, in a video message ahead of the first International Day of Epidemic Preparedness on Dec. 27, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was time to learn the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"History tells us that this will not be the last pandemic, and epidemics are a fact of life," said Tedros.
"Any efforts to improve human health are doomed unless they address the critical interface between humans and animals, and the existential threat of climate change that’s making our earth less habitable," he added.
Vaccinations in all 27 European Union countries had been set to begin from Dec. 27, after regulators approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on December 21.
But some countries began on Dec. 26: a 101-year-old woman in a care home became the first person in Germany to be inoculated, and the first jabs were also handed out in Hungary and Slovakia.
The three EU countries joined China, Russia and Britain, Canada, the United States, Switzerland, Serbia, Singapore and Saudi Arabia, which have also begun their vaccination campaigns.
"We’ll get our freedom back, we’ll be able to embrace again," Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said as he urged his countrymen to get the shot.
But polls show only 57 percent of Italians intend to get the jab, whereas scientists estimate herd immunity can only be reached if 75 to 80 percent have it.
Flare-ups of the virus continue to force nations to toughen restrictions, with Austria beginning a third national lockdown on Dec. 26 and millions waking to tougher restrictions in Britain.
France’s health minister Olivier Veran would not rule out a third lockdown if authorities decide it’s necessary to tamp down infections.
Jitters also remained over a new strain that has emerged in Britain and reached several other European countries such as France and Sweden, as well as Japan.
Four cases were confirmed in Madrid on Dec. 26, though the patients were not seriously ill, according to the Madrid regional government’s deputy health chief Antonio Zapatero, who said "there is no need for alarm."
Canada reported Saturday that it had detected two variant cases in the province of Ontario - a couple who had not traveled recently nor had high risk contacts with other people.
The new strain, which experts fear is more contagious, prompted more than 50 countries to impose travel restrictions on the U.K.
In Asia, China’s communist leadership issued a statement hailing the "extremely extraordinary glory" of its handling of the virus, state news agency Xinhua reported.
Japanese capital Tokyo reported a record 949 new daily cases, while Thailand has seen a new outbreak linked to a seafood market near Bangkok infect almost 1,500 people.
In Australia, there was little sign of the usual rush to the Boxing Day sales in Sydney, with residents largely heeding the state premier’s request they stay home in the face of a new virus cluster.
"Even when we entered the store there were less than 10 people," shopper Lia Gunawan told The Sydney Morning Herald.
Australian golf great Greg Norman became the latest well-known name to quarantine, saying on Dec. 26 he was isolating at home after spending Christmas Day in the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms.
Across the world, people were still being urged to respect social distancing guidelines.
Switzerland’s health minister Alain Berset noted Saturday his country had put the emphasis on personal responsibility.
But he admitted that had not worked and that the government blundered in easing restrictions too far, resulting in some of Europe’s fiercest infection rates during the pandemic’s second wave.
In authoritarian post-Soviet Turkmenistan, where the government says no coronavirus cases have been detected, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov claimed that licorice root could cure COVID-19.
Without citing any scientific evidence, former dentist Berdymukhamedov claimed that "licorice stops the coronavirus from developing."