AstraZeneca ramps up global vaccine drive
AstraZeneca announced on Thursday (local time) that it planned to ramp up its global vaccine drive, as the World Health Organisation approved the pharma giant's jab for over-65s and global immunisation efforts gained momentum.
The pharma giant also announced its profits had doubled in 2020.
Mass COVID-19 vaccination programs are being ramped up in many countries, more than 155.7 million people in at least 91 countries had been vaccinated as of Thursday (local time).
But so far, the rollouts are being hampered by limited supplies and AstraZeneca's jab has been in the spotlight after a number of European countries refused to authorise it for the over-65s - the demographic most vulnerable to COVID-19.
It was also at the centre of a diplomatic spat between the EU and Britain earlier this year over supply problems.
Nevertheless, the WHO backed AstraZeneca's coronavirus shot on Wednesday - including for over-65s and in places were new virus variants are circulating.
The AstraZeneca shot forms the bulk of doses being rolled out around the world - especially in poorer countries - under the Covax program.
"It is likely that the vaccine will be found to be efficacious in older persons. The trial data indicate that the vaccine is safe for this age group," said WHO expert Alejandro Cravioti.
He said the WHO was awaiting more specific data on the vaccine's efficacy in over-65s, but that it "would not be appropriate" to wait with "thousands of people dying".
WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said the benefits of using the AstraZeneca shot would "far outweigh" any risks even in nations with new variants.
On Thursday, AstraZeneca said its 2020 earnings had doubled, even without taking into account sales of its vaccine which was only approved for use at the end of last year.
"Despite the significant impact from the pandemic, we delivered double-digit revenue growth," CEO Pascal Soriot said as the group announced net profits of US$3.2 billion ($A4.1 billion) in 2020.
"The progress of the COVID-19 vaccine demonstrated what we can achieve."
ASTRAZENECA VARIANT JAB COULD TAKE SIX MONTHS
Meanwhile, AstraZeneca has said it could take between six and nine months to produce COVID-19 vaccines that work against new variants of coronavirus.
The company's current vaccine, which it developed jointly with scientists at the University of Oxford, remains effective against the original virus and the Kent variant, first discovered in England.
But preliminary findings in a small study suggested it was not effective against the South African variant.
"Work on the variants hasn't started today, it started weeks and months ago, as soon as those new variants were identified", said Sir Mene Pangalos, executive vice-president, Biopharmaceuticals R & D at AstraZeneca.
The new vaccine could be available to the public by the Northern Hemisphere autumn, assuming it is approved by regulatory bodies.
"It is quite possible that the vaccines we have today will still be protecting against all of the variants, for severe disease, hospitalisations and death," Mr Pangalos said, adding: "My assumption is that if we want to protect against mild disease as well, then vaccines that are targeting these new variants are likely to be more effective in the milder cases of the disease."
He pledged to double the amount of vaccinations in Europe within a month by increasing supply.
AstraZeneca is producing 100 million doses a month globally, and that this is expected to rise to 200 million by April, with 336 million doses expected to be available to 145 countries in the first half of the year through the Covax scheme.
The AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine has now been approved for use in more than a quarter of countries around the world.
PEOPLE WITH TWO VACCINE DOSES CAN SKIP QUARANTINE
People who have received a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine can skip mandatory 14-day quarantine periods after exposure to someone with the infection as long as they remain asymptomatic, US public health officials have advised.
The US Centres For Disease Control (CDC) said the vaccines have been shown to prevent symptomatic COVID-19, thought to play a greater role in the transmission of the virus than asymptomatic disease.
But the CDC still recommends that vaccinated people still wear masks, practice social distancing and avoid poorly ventilated spaces and crowds.
In a statement, the CDC said: "Individual and societal benefits of avoiding unnecessary quarantine may outweigh the potential but unknown risk of transmission (among vaccinated individuals)."
Dr. Anthony Fauci told NBC in the US that he anticipates the vaccine rollout to increase dramatically.
April will be "open season, namely virtually everybody and anybody in any category could start to get vaccinated", he said.
The CDC recommends vaccinated people still wear masks, practice social distancing, and avoid crowds, and poorly ventilated indoor spaces.
At this stage there is little to no information on whether the vaccine can prevent transmission and how long it provides immunity against the virus.
GERMANY WARNS OF BORDER CLOSURES
And German leaders warned on Thursday (local time) that they could not rule out shutting the country's borders with its neighbours because of troublingly high coronavirus infections fuelled by more contagious variants in countries like Austria and the Czech Republic.
"We believe it would be sensible to declare both (Austria and Czech Republic) as mutation areas. This will likely happen," said Bavarian state premier Markus Soeder.
He had warned that if the Czech Republic was unable to take appropriate measures to kerb contagion, then a "border closure must also be an issue".
Germany in late January banned most travellers from countries classed as so-called mutation areas or places hardest hit by new, more contagious coronavirus variants.
Only a handful of exceptions are allowed to enter Germany from these countries, including returning Germans and essential workers.
With neighbouring EU countries continuing to report high infection numbers in part fuelled by variants, German leaders fear that keeping the borders open could compromise the country's efforts to kerb contagion.
Austria has already ordered restrictions to stop people leaving the mountainous Tyrol region, which Chancellor Sebastian Kurz says has been hit by the biggest outbreak in Europe of the South African variant.
Anyone leaving the region must now show a negative coronavirus test, with fines of up to 1,450 euros ($A2267) for anyone who fails to comply.
The Czech government said on Thursday that it would block off three hard-hit districts, including two on the German border, stopping people living in these zones from leaving and others from entering.
BRITS FLOCK TO GET VACCINATED
Meanwhile, Britain is on course for an "easier" exit from lockdown because citizens are being vaccinated in "incredible" numbers, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Thursday (local time).
The uptake of the vaccine has been "far, far higher than expected" raising hopes over the longer term that there will be a scaling back of restrictions.
According the The Sun, Mr Hancock said the Government had been working on the assumption that three-quarters of people would get the jab, but the figure two months into the rollout program is higher than 90 per cent.
The vaccination rate in 75-79-year-olds is 96 per cent.
Britain has now inoculated more people than the whole of the EU.
Mr Hancock's revelation that the UK is ahead of where it expected to be on jabs will boost hopes for the longer term relaxation of restrictions.
The Health Secretary was asked what percentage of people need to have taken the vaccine for the easing of restrictions to go ahead.
He told BBC Breakfast: "The assumption we had going into the vaccine program was 75 per cent of people would take the jab, and we're now well over 90 per cent.
"So that has gone far better than my most optimistic projections, and I'm quite an optimistic kind of guy.
"That has gone really very well and that of course does make it easier safely for us together to come out of this.
"The difference between say 80 per cent of people taking this up and 90 per cent is that you actually halve from 20 to 10 the number of people who are unprotected.
"These extra few percentages really, really matter because they reduce the number of people who are not protected."
Mr Hancock said early evidence shows the vaccine reduces transmission of the virus by around two-thirds.
"So that means taking the jab not only protects you, it protects those around you as well."
His upbeat remarks come ahead of a major set-piece speech by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on February 22, during which he will set out a plan for unlocking the country.
Mr Johnson has already said he aims to reopen schools on 8 March providing pandemic numbers continue going down.
The PM is also expected to set out a longer term road map for reopening shops and the hospitality sector, starting with activities that can be done outdoors like al fresco dining and open air markets.
It comes as the Scottish Government said that more than one million people in Scotland have now had their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
But Ireland's lockdown has been extended until April with restaurants, non-essential shops and schools closed and people told to stay at home.
A stricter lockdown will be imposed in Greece from Thursday, in particular in the Athens region, as Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis warned that his country was facing a third COVID-19 wave.
117yo NUN SURVIVES COVID
Europe's oldest person, French nun Sister Andre, turned 117 on Thursday (local time) after surviving COVID-19 last month and living through two world wars - and the pandemic of 1918.
Born Lucile Randon on February 11, 1904, Sister Andre said she didn't realise she had caught the coronavirus, which infected 81 residents of her retirement home in the southeast city of Toulon, killing 10 of them.
"I'm told that I got it," the nun told reporters from her home, where she sat basking in the winter sun, her eyes closed and hands clasped in prayer.
"I was very tired, it's true, but I didn't realise it," she added.
But David Tavella, spokesman for the Sainte Catherine Laboure nursing home, said she had "experienced a triple confinement: in her wheelchair, in her room and without a visit".
"So her birthday, it reinvigorates us," he added, following the deadly outbreak.
The facility, home to a dozen nuns, plans a special mass, and the chef is preparing a birthday feast with foie gras, capon fillet with porcini mushrooms and Sister Andre's favourite dessert: baked Alaska.
She says her favourite food is lobster and she enjoys "a small glass of wine every day".
She is the second-oldest living person in the world, according to the Gerontology Research Group, after Japanese woman Kane Tanaka, who is 118.
Asked what she would say to young people, Sister Andre said, hands clasped in prayer, "Be brave and show compassion."
Originally published as AstraZeneca ramps up global vaccine drive