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VACCINES

EU launches ‘vaccine tracker’ and shifts strategy away from AstraZeneca

The EU's disease agency has launched a Covid-19 vaccine tracking tool, providing an overview of countries' efforts in the rollout of inoculations across Europe. It came as the EU Commission said it was shifting its strategy away from relying on the AstraZeneca vaccine.

EU launches 'vaccine tracker' and shifts strategy away from AstraZeneca
Photo: Ishara S Kodikara/AFP and ECDC (edited by The Local)

The first set of data was available on the website of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), covering the 27-nation bloc plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. 

However it was still incomplete on Monday, as some countries, such as France had yet to report their national data. Member states are expected to report their numbers twice a week.

As a result, the tracker indicated the number of vaccine doses administered in its member states as of Monday was 8.23 million, though in reality the number is much higher.

(Not all countries had uploaded their data as February 2nd. )

According to AFP's own database compiled from official sources, by 1600 GMT Monday, at least 12.6 million doses have been administered to 10.5 million people in the EU, representing 2.3 percent of the population.

“In this early phase of vaccination campaigns, monitoring the number of doses distributed to countries and doses received by individuals provides useful insights into the progress of vaccine deployment and the evolution of vaccination campaigns,” the ECDC said in a statement.

“It also provides initial indicative estimates of vaccine uptake for the first and second dose per population targeted by vaccine recommendations on the national level.”

ECDC Director Andrea Ammon said: “It is with great pleasure that we launch the Vaccine Tracker that provides a near-live view on vaccination progress in Europe. Vaccination campaigns are not to be viewed merely as a race for the largest numbers at the quickest speed. As the rollout progresses, vaccination strategies will need to be flexible and adaptable.”

Move away from AstraZeneca

The European Commission indicated Monday that it is shifting its early Covid-19 vaccination strategy away from AstraZeneca after the Anglo-Swedish company fell far short in its delivery of doses.

The head of the Commission's health directorate, Sandra Gallina, told MEPs the firm has been able to guarantee just 25 percent of the more than 100 million doses promised and that this was “a real issue” for the EU's 27 countries.

“AstraZeneca was going to be the mass vaccine for quarter one,” she said, referring to the first three months of 2021. “The fact that AstraZeneca is not there in the quantities that were stipulated in the contract is quite problematic for all member states.”

Galina added that the Commission was now looking to the vaccines made by BioNTech/Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson to fill the gap.

“There will be many more quantities in quarter two because there will be a new contract that will spring into action. So we will not have only BioNTech and Moderna but we will have BioNTech with a new contract, so it's double the quantities.”

She noted that the new mRNA technology used in the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine and a similar one by Moderna had shown “impressive” efficacy levels of over 90 percent in immunising against Covid.

AstraZeneca, which uses the adenovirus technique, has 60 percent efficacy, according to clinical data parsed by the European Medicines Agency.

Gallina said production of the BioNTech/Pfizer doses could be ramped up using other pharmaceutical companies' facilities, for instance ones offered by French company Sanofi, whose own vaccine bid has hit obstacles. 

“Manufacturing is really the moment when we have a problem of constraint for the vaccines,” Gallina said.

But she emphasised that “the problem will not be having the vaccines, the problem will be vaccination… We need to quickly look at how we can speed up vaccination once the vaccines are there.”

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TRAVEL NEWS

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

The mandatory EU-wide mask requirement for air travel is set to be dropped from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still require passengers to wear masks on some or all flights

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

Europe-wide facemask rules on flights are set to be ditched as early as next week in light of new recommendations from health and air safety experts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dropped recommendations for mandatory mask-wearing in airports and during flights in updated Covid-19 safety measures for travel issued on Wednesday, May 11th.

The new rules are expected to be rolled out from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still continue to require the wearing of masks on some or all of flights. And the updated health safety measures still say that wearing a face mask remains one of the best ways to protect against the transmission of the virus.

The joint EASA/ECDC statement reminded travellers that masks may still be required on flights to destinations in certain countries that still require the wearing of masks on public transport and in transport hubs.

It also recommends that vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask which offers a higher level of protection than a standard surgical mask.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said in the statement. 

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”  

ECDC director Andrea Ammon added: “The development and continuous updates to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have given travellers and aviation personnel better knowledge of the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. 

“While risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal. 

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission. 

“The rules and requirements of departure and destination states should be respected and applied consistently, and travel operators should take care to inform passengers of any required measures in a timely manner.”

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