New Zealand government shows the first batch of around 60,000 COVID-19 coronavirus vaccines being unloaded after arrival as airfreight at Auckland International Airport/AFP.

by Joe Jackson in London and AFP bureaus

Britain’s coronavirus vaccination program has covered all its main target groups of vulnerable people, it said Sunday, hours after New Zealand, so far largely spared by the pandemic, put its largest city into lockdown.

The European Union, meanwhile, facing criticism over its sluggish roll-out, confirmed it would fast-track approval of vaccines updated to target variants of the original virus.

Germany partially closed its borders with the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol on Sunday following a surge in new coronavirus variant cases, drawing a swift rebuke from Brussels.

And in Geneva, World Health Organization experts were to meet Monday to evaluate granting emergency validation to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine so it can be shipped to poorer nations.

The WHO group met last week to assess the version produced in South Korea, and on Monday they were to discuss one made by the Serum Institute in India, with their conclusions for both expected in coming days.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed hitting the “significant milestone” of 15 million jabs just over two months after the country launched its biggest-ever vaccination program.

“This country has achieved an extraordinary feat,” he said in a video message posted on Twitter.

Britain met its aim of vaccinating everyone in four priority groups: those over 70, care home residents and staff, health service workers and the clinically vulnerable.

In its next step, the country will Monday introduce mandatory regulations for all UK citizens to self-isolate in approved hotels for 10 days and take several Covid-19 tests when they arrive from dozens of “high-risk” countries.

Auckland lockdown

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ordered the country’s biggest city Auckland into a snap lockdown for the first time in nearly six months.

The measures came after three members of an Auckland family tested positive for the UK variant, with authorities concerned about the “new and active” infections as there was no obvious source of transmission.

Almost two million residents were told on Sunday to stay at home from midnight, with schools and businesses to close except for essential services.

“I know we all feel the same way when this happens — not again,” Ardern said.

“But remember, we have been here before, that means we know how to get out of this — together.”

The Pacific island nation has been widely praised for its handling of the pandemic, with just 25 deaths in a population of five million.

EU to fast-track vaccine updates

With growing concern over more contagious variants, the European Union has agreed to fast-track approval of vaccines updated to target them, health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said Sunday.

“We looked at the process together with the European Medicines Agency (EMA),” Stella Kyriakides told German daily Augsburger Allgemeine.

“We have now decided that a vaccine, which has been improved by a manufacturer based on its previous vaccine to combat new mutations, no longer has to go through the entire approvals process.”

The EU’s vaccine rollout has been snagged by delays and controversies, leaving it lagging behind the United States, Britain and Israel.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen last week admitted that mistakes had been made in procuring vaccines on behalf of all 27 member states.

Germany, meanwhile, mobilized a thousand police officers for strict checks at its border with the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol region.

At the Kiefersfelden crossing in southern Bavaria, masked officers in yellow high-visibility jackets were out in sub-zero temperatures, stopping each vehicle from Austria.

The restrictions are aimed at slowing the spread of more transmissible variants first identified in Britain and South Africa, which have created new virus hotspots along the Czech border and in the Tyrol region.

But Kyriakides condemned the German measure, saying vaccines and following preventative measures were “the only things that work.”

Beginning of the end… hopefully

The novel coronavirus has killed at least 2,395,044 people since the outbreak emerged in China in December 2019, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP at 1800 GMT on Sunday.

More than 172 million vaccine doses have been given in at least 95 countries or territories, according to an AFP tally drawn from official sources.

But most of those doses have gone to the richer countries.

Lebanon kicked off its vaccination campaign Sunday, with healthcare workers and the elderly first in line.

The first jab was given to Mahmoud Hassoun, head of the intensive care unit at Rafik Hariri Hospital, which has been at the forefront of battling the outbreak.

“Hopefully this will be the beginning of the end of this plague in the country,” he told AFP.

Japan, meanwhile, approved its first coronavirus vaccine Sunday, clearing the way for mass inoculations as the nation prepares to host the postponed 2020 Olympics.

Japan is now expected to use the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for between 10,000-20,000 medical workers from as early as Wednesday.


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