A global initiative to distribute coronavirus vaccines to poorer countries was boosted on Monday by a deal to buy more than 100 million Chinese jabs, as Asia-Pacific leaders agreed to address the COVID-induced economic slump.
European countries were also facing a reckoning with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson expected to announce further details of England’s plans to do away with most restrictions on 19 July, and French President Emmanuel Macron set to address the nation on his ideas for weathering the onslaught from new variants.
The virus has killed more than four million people since first emerging in China in late 2019 and attempts to halt its spread have been hampered by its ability to mutate, with the fast-spreading Delta variant now the dominant strain in many parts of the world.
Vaccines are still seen as the best way to allow economies to reopen while keeping the public safe, but many poorer nations are still lagging far behind their richer counterparts — tens of millions in Asian cities are now once again living in lockdown.
Seth Berkley, who heads the Gavi alliance — one of the partners behind the Covax initiative to get jabs to poorer countries — hailed the agreement with Sinovac and Sinopharm for 110 million shots.
“Thanks to this deal, and because these vaccines have already received WHO Emergency Use Listing, we can move to start supplying doses to countries immediately,” he said in a statement.
Covax has delivered more than 100 million jabs so far, well short of its aims after India halted exports of AstraZeneca vaccines produced by the Serum Institute of India to address its own domestic demands.
Another part of the world struggling to get jabs is Taiwan, with the island’s government accusing China of playing politics with public health.
Two tech companies — Foxconn and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company — have stepped in to break the impasse, saying they will each donate five million doses.
“Me and my team feel the public anxiety and expectations on the vaccines and we are relieved to give the public an answer that relevant contracts have been signed,” Foxconn founder Terry Gou said in a post on his Facebook page.
Across Asia, governments are struggling to keep a lid on the spread, with Bangkok joining a growing list of major cities under lockdown — much to the chagrin of business owners.
“The government decided to impose a lockdown but they don’t have compensatory measures for the people whatsoever,” said restaurant owner Arphawan Larangam.
Even in Australia, which has remained largely free from infections for most of the pandemic, the authorities in Sydney are struggling with an outbreak of more than 100 cases in the past 24 hours.
New South Wales state premier Gladys Berejiklian blamed people breaking lockdown confinement rules.
“If you put yourself at risk, you’re putting your entire family — and that means extended family, as well as your closest friends and associates — at risk,” Berejiklian warned.
England’s ‘Freedom Day’
From the onset of the pandemic, politicians and the public have been grappling with the need to stay safe while ensuring economies are not suffering unduly.
New Zealand leader Jacinda Ardern announced Asia-Pacific leaders would hold an emergency conference on the Covid response on Friday, with US President Joe Biden and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin among those attending.
She said it was the first such meeting in the history of regional grouping APEC, and demonstrated the level of concern about an economic slump that has shed 81 million jobs in the area.
“Responding collectively is vital to accelerate the economic recovery for the region,” she said.
While Macron is expected to announce requirements for people to show a “health pass” to get into restaurants and other places and mandatory jabs for reluctant health workers, Britain’s Johnson is pushing 19 July as “Freedom Day” for England.
“We are tantalisingly close to the final milestone in our roadmap out of lockdown,” said Boris Johnson in remarks previewing his speech.
But with cases spiking — even if widespread vaccinations have helped keep the hospitalisation rate low — Johnson said caution was “absolutely vital”.