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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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COVID-19

Health experts advise end of masks on public transport in Spain

Spanish health experts have advised the government that the use of masks should no longer be obligatory on public transport, but no concrete date has yet been set.

Health experts advise end of masks on public transport in Spain

Health experts who advise the Spanish Ministry of Health have said that masks should no longer be mandatory on public transport, but with the caveat that the government should first wait and observe the epidemiological situation in China, which has experienced a surge in case numbers since it abandoned its strict ‘Zero Covid’ strategy at the end of 2022, following widespread civil unrest.

The use of masks on public transport has now been the norm in Spain for almost three years, since the start of the pandemic. 

Speaking to Ser Canarias, Darias said: “We are getting closer and closer [to the end of having to wear a mask], but we will have to see how things evolve in order to make that decision; obviously the epidemiological situation is getting better and better, but we have to see how the issue of China evolves”. 

Reports in the Spanish press suggest some kind of agreement was made during a meeting between the government and the experts in December that masks would no longer be compulsory after assessing the situation in China, however, there is still no fixed date.

Back in October 2022, Spain’s ‘Emergency Unit’ suggested that mask rules would not be reviewed until March 2023 at the earliest, but more recently it said that it does not seem necessary to wait for March to remove the mask rule. 

According to recent Ministry of Health figures, just 2.79 percent of hospital beds in Spain are taken up by Covid-19 patients.

READ ALSO: Face masks to remain mandatory on public transport in Spain until March 2023

The use of masks indoors in Spain ceased to be mandatory on April 20th, 2022, after almost two years, however, they have remained mandatory in hospitals, pharmacies and, crucially, also on buses, metro, trains, planes and taxis.

While the mask rules have been strictly enforced in some places in Spain such as Seville and Valencia, in other cities such as Barcelona, many people refuse to wear them, despite the regulations still officially being in place. 

READ ALSO: Spain now requires Covid certificates for arrivals from China

In China, figures suggest that almost 60,000 people have died as a result of Covid-19 in a single month amid the spike in cases following the end of the country’s draconian restrictions. In response, Spain reintroduced health control checks for travellers arriving from China. 

It seems that Darias and the Spanish government are waiting to see how the situation plays out in China first, but all the indications and expert advice seems to suggest that masks will no longer be mandatory in public transport sometime very soon. 

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