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Europe vaccine effort gets boost as Asia battles clusters

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London: Europe rushed to bulk buy more coronavirus vaccine doses and approved more drugs on Friday, as millions in China and Australia faced tough restrictions over isolated outbreaks.

The European Union said it had agreed an option for a further 300 million jabs from Pfizer/BioNTech, doubling its supply of the drug, as the bloc hinted it could approve a third vaccine by the end of the month.

Britain, freshly departed from the EU, approved its third vaccine on Friday from US firm Moderna, keeping ahead of its neighbours in terms of vaccines available and numbers inoculated.

In contrast, in Asia where drastic lockdowns had all but tamed the contagion, millions were once again living under stringent restrictions.

Australia locked down its third city Brisbane after detecting a single infection and China sealed off two cities and imposed travel restrictions on 18 million people after uncovering 127 cases.

“I am more worried than before,” said Wu Xi, a medical worker in Shijiazhuang, the northern city at the heart of the new outbreak. “But I still believe the outbreak will be contained very soon. Stay strong.”

The outbreaks in China and Australia were on a far smaller scale than the record surges in many parts of the world, including in the United States where health systems in some areas are overwhelmed and the daily death toll is now soaring regularly above 3,000.

Around the world, there are few signs of the virus abating, with nearly 1.9 million people known to have died and 87 million confirmed cases.

– ‘Another weapon’ – But Europe received several boosts on Friday to its efforts to vaccinate hundreds of millions of people.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the bloc would have “more than enough” doses for its entire population, thanks to the new deal with Pfizer/BioNTech and forthcoming approvals of other drugs including a jab developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

BioNTech said in a statement its jabs were effective against a “key mutation” found in new strains of the virus that emerged in Britain and South Africa — calming fears over the variants.

British ministers were trying to provide upbeat news to their beleaguered citizens in a week when the country leapfrogged Italy into fifth place in the global rankings for coronavirus deaths.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced the approval of the Moderna jab, calling it “another weapon in our arsenal”.

– ‘Completely untrustworthy’ – But illustrating the desperate immediate situation in parts of the UK, London Mayor Sadiq Khan declared a “major incident” in the capital.

“The stark reality is that we will run out of beds for patients in the next couple of weeks unless the spread of the virus slows down drastically,” he said.

The devastating impact on tourism and culture was once again underscored on Friday, with the Louvre in Paris, the world’s biggest museum, announcing its visitor numbers had fallen by 70 percent last year.

There were fresh challenges too, with vaccine rollouts challenged by anxious populations.

In France, this scepticism even includes doctors, with just half of a survey of 1,200 saying they would definitely get the jab and 10 percent saying they were openly opposed.

“If the level of hesitation among doctors does not go down, it will be a brake on the vaccination campaign,” researcher Pierre Verger, who carried out the survey, told AFP.

Iran, meanwhile, placed an outright ban on jabs made in the UK or US with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei labelling them “completely untrustworthy”.

– Lockdown ‘imperative’ – Several parts of Asia have found themselves thrust back into a virus alert this week.

The measures taken in China and Australia came after Japan declared a state of emergency for the Tokyo region.

Shortly after ordering two million people in Brisbane to stay at home for at least three days, Australian officials had to urge people to stop panic-buying as large queues formed outside shops.

“I don’t think a three-day lockdown is going to hurt us at all. I think it’s imperative to stamp out the virus,” said resident Andy McPhee, 51.

Tokyo’s state of emergency announcement raised further misgivings about the viability of the Olympic Games due to be held this summer.

Games organisers hailed the emergency order as an opportunity to “get the Covid-19 situation under control”, but International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound was less positive.

He said he could not be certain the games would go ahead because of the risk of further virus surges, something he described as the “elephant in the room”.

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