Stockholm – The head of the EU’s disease control agency warned Friday that the novel coronavirus could last indefinitely even as global infections slowed by nearly half in the last month and vaccine rollouts gathered pace in parts of the world.
In an interview, ECDC chief Andrea Ammon urged European countries in particular not to drop their guard against a virus that “seems very well adapted to humans” and may require experts to tweak vaccines over time, as is the case for the seasonal flu.
“So we should be prepared that it will remain with us,” according to Ammon, head of the Stockholm-based European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
After the latest harsh wave of a pandemic that started in China more than a year ago, glimmers of hope flickered as a specialized AFP database showed the rate of new COVID-19 infections has slowed by 44.5% worldwide over the past month.
Already, more than 107 million people have been infected worldwide and nearly 2.4 million have died from COVID-19.
In Britain, a marked drop in infections and accelerating vaccinations have prompted some within the governing Conservative Party to push for stay-at-home rules to be lifted in early March.
Much of the country re-entered lockdown in early January to curb a more transmissible COVID-19 variant first identified in the U.K.
The British government nonetheless voiced caution, a watchword echoed elsewhere, including Italy, Portugal and Australia.
Italy extended a domestic travel ban until Feb. 25 and tightened restrictions in four regions amid rising concern about the spread of more infectious coronavirus variants.
Portugal extended border controls with Spain until March 1.
And Australia ordered more than 6 million people in Melbourne and surrounding area into an emergency five-day coronavirus lockdown.
“It’s rough. It’s going to be a rough few days for everyone,” said tennis star Serena Williams, reacting to the lockdown news moments after her latest victory at the Australian Open.
While play will continue under the restrictions, fans will no longer be permitted and players must restrict themselves to biosecure “bubbles.”
The toll on sports, entertainment and economies continued to be massive.
The Tokyo Olympic Games are due to open in July after multiple delays.
But the games organizers are already battling public misgivings about holding the huge international event this summer.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen urged the 27 EU member countries to accelerate ratification of a key part of the bloc’s €750 billion ($900-billion) plan to recover from the impact of the pandemic.
The U.K. — which has left the EU and has Europe’s highest virus death toll after a heavily criticized initial response to the pandemic — reported that the economy shrank a record 9.9% last year.
Finance minister Rishi Sunak admitted the impact would be a “serious shock” and warned: “We should expect the economy to get worse before it gets better.”
London meanwhile pressed for joint action from the Group of Seven — Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States — to tackle the global fallout from the pandemic.
Hungary, meanwhile, said it will become the first EU nation to start using Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
The country broke ranks with the EU last month by becoming the first bloc member to approve Sputnik V, ordering 2 million doses to be delivered over three months, enough to vaccinate 1 million people.
Russia registered Sputnik V in August, months ahead of Western competitors but before the start of large-scale clinical trials, which left some experts wary.
However, recent results published in The Lancet journal found that the vaccine is 91.6% effective against COVID-19.
Some EU leaders seem to be warming to the idea of deploying Sputnik V as the bloc struggles with supply shortfalls for the three vaccines it has approved.
The European Medicines Agency has so far approved vaccines for the bloc developed by U.S.-German firm Pfizer-BioNTech, U.S. firm Moderna and British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca with Oxford University.
The EMA said Friday it had started a “rolling review” of a vaccine from German manufacturer CureVac, the first step towards possible authorization.
Non-EU Bosnia started vaccinating on Friday, using the Sputnik V jab, but only medical staff will be inoculated for now.
In the United States — the world’s hardest-hit country with more than 470,000 deaths — Joe Biden announced plans to vaccinate nearly all American citizens by the end of July.
On Thursday the U.S. president said deals had been struck for 100 million more Moderna and 100 million more Pfizer vaccines.
With the latest vaccine purchases, the U.S. is on track “to have enough supply for 300 million Americans by the end of July,” Biden said, meaning enough inoculations for all eligible people.
Hard-hit Brazil’s drive to vaccinate its population has stumbled this week as a lack of doses forced authorities to slow or halt immunization in several key areas.
But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout will be back on track in March with stepped up deliveries of doses to make up for recent delays.
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