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EU races to catch up on vaccines as Brazil deaths cross 300,000

MEXICO CITY: An elderly woman in a wheelchair is assisted before getting vaccinated with a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 at the vaccination center set up at the University City Exhibition Center and Congress in Coyoacan, Mexico City on Wednesday.-AFP

BRUSSELS: The European Union will look for ways to end its vaccine struggles at a summit yesterday, as a COVID-19 surge takes the death toll in Brazil past 300,000. A crucial tool in the fight against the pandemic, vaccines were in the spotlight again with AstraZeneca revising down the efficacy of its shot from 79 to 76 percent after a US agency raised concerns about outdated numbers.

AstraZeneca’s jab is also at the center of the EU’s vaccine woes, with an infuriated Brussels tightening export controls after the firm failed to deliver the doses it had promised to the bloc. EU leaders will meet via videoconference to discuss AstraZeneca supplies, as well as new vaccine export rules that will weigh how needy countries are in terms of infection rates, how many jabs they have, and how readily they export doses to the bloc.

“Open roads should run in both directions,” said European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen. Britain, which has raced ahead with its immunization drive, is seen as one of the targets of the new export rules after a bitter spat over vaccine supplies. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that the EU risked long-term damage to its reputation if it imposed “a blockade”.

‘Locked up’
Governments are trying to ramp up vaccinations, racing against the virus which is surging once again in many parts of the world. Brazil’s COVID-19 death toll passed 300,000 on Wednesday, the second-highest number of fatalities in the world, with its hospitals pushed to the brink. At a demonstration in Rio de Janeiro marking 300,000 virus deaths in Brazil, protesters held signs that read “Shame” and laid 30 roses on symbolic patient beds in front of a hospital.

Mexico, another hard-hit Latin American nation, neared 200,000 deaths, as authorities pressed on with a vaccination program. “How have we spent (the pandemic)? Locked up,” said Miguel Molina, 75, who got a jab in Mexico City. “I have (spent) a year and three months locked up, without going out. This is the first time I go out.

AZ updates
British-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca on Wednesday revised down by three percentage points the effectiveness of its COVID vaccine after American authorities raised concerns that results reported from its US trial were outdated. The company now says its vaccine is 76 rather than 79 percent effective at preventing any kind of symptomatic COVID.

It remains 100 percent effective against severe COVID, it added. The move came after an independent panel of experts appointed to supervise the trial expressed concern that AstraZeneca had failed to include updated data in its initially released figure. The US National Institutes of Health then issued a highly unusual statement asking AstraZeneca to work with the panel and issue a new press release.

“We look forward to filing our regulatory submission for Emergency Use Authorization in the US and preparing for the rollout of millions of doses across America,” said Mene Pangalos executive vice president of biopharmaceuticals research and development. The new figure is based on 190 people who fell sick among 32,449 trial participants across the United States, Peru and Chile, two-thirds of whom received the vaccine while the rest received a placebo. The previous figure was based on 141 cases, with a cut-off in mid-February. The company added there are 14 additional or probable COVID cases left to be adjudicated.

Bumpy rollout
Depending on whether these occurred in the vaccine or placebo group, the final efficacy figure could go up or down a few percentage points. The company added the vaccine efficacy in people 65-years-old and over was 85 percent, but the statistical range for this figure — anywhere between 58 and 95 percent — make it less meaningful and the sample size was not mentioned.

Eight cases of severe COVID occurred — all in the placebo group. AstraZeneca was an early frontrunner in the global race to develop a COVID vaccine, and was heavily favored by the United States, which ordered 300 million doses — more than its first orders for Moderna’s and Pfizer’s shots.

But a series of communications blunders eroded US agencies’ confidence. The US now has three authorized vaccines — Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson — and should have enough supply to more than cover the adult population by the end of May. However, authorization by the Food and Drug Administration — considered the gold standard regulator — would go a long way to calm global doubts over the AstraZeneca vaccine. Several European countries paused rollout of the shot over potential blood clot risks before later resuming its use. – AFP


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