EU gets first jabs, Tokyo sets daily record

EU gets first jabs, Tokyo sets daily record

Vaccinations to start in several European countries on Sunday as Covid cases mount

Medical staff place vaccines in an ultra-low temperature freezer after taking delivery of the first shipments of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the UZ Leuven hospital in Leuven, Belgium on Saturday. (AFP Photo)
Medical staff place vaccines in an ultra-low temperature freezer after taking delivery of the first shipments of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the UZ Leuven hospital in Leuven, Belgium on Saturday. (AFP Photo)

European Union countries began taking delivery of their first Covid-19 vaccines on Saturday, with immunisations scheduled to begin in several countries on Sunday.

The deliveries came as the virus continued to spread at an alarming rate in many countries, and worries mounted about a new strain that is transmitted even more easily.

In Japan, Tokyo reported a record 949 new coronavirus cases on Saturday as authorities urged residents to stay home.

The figure compared with 884 new cases on Friday and the previous high of 888 on Thursday, according to data provided by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

Authorities have imposed the highest alert in the metropolis of nearly 14 million people, and warned that the medical situation there has become strained.

Two more people in Japan have been confirmed as infected with the new, potentially more transmissible coronavirus variant spreading in Britain, sources familiar with the matter said on Saturday.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has called on residents to refrain from unnecessary outings, and has asked bars and restaurants in central districts to close at 10pm. He hopes to slow the spread during a period when many people attend Bonen-kai gatherings, which translates as “forget-the-year party”.

Koike said the New Year holiday period would be “a very important juncture” that would predict the future of Tokyo in 2021, and asked residents to avoid going out during the holidays. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga also repeated a call for the public to spend the holidays at home. 

South Korea, meanwhile, posted its second-highest daily number of cases on Saturday as outbreaks at a prison, nursing homes and churches continued to grow, prompting authorities to plead for a halt to all year-end gatherings.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said there were 1,132 new coronavirus cases on Friday, not far off the record 1,241 logged a day earlier.

“The virus is spreading whenever and wherever it wants,” Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said, adding that people were also being infected at small gatherings with friends and acquaintances.

“As we stand at the crossroads of the third wave, how we stop the spread hinges on how we spend this year-end and New Year period.”

KDCA chief Jeong Eun-kyeong urged that all private gatherings be cancelled and public and religious events be held online.

Authorities will meet on Sunday to discuss whether to tighten distancing rules to the toughest level for the greater Seoul area.

Doing so would shut another 1.2 million stores and allow only essential workers into offices. Curbs currently in place have closed nightclubs, karaoke bars and other entertainment venues as well as banned on-site dining after 9pm.

South Korea had largely managed to control early major outbreaks with aggressive testing and contact tracing. But critics have faulted authorities for being over-confident and failing to properly prepare for the third and largest wave.

The current largest cluster is at a prison in eastern Seoul, where 520 inmates, workers and their family members have been infected, prompting health authorities to test all 650 people there.

South Korea’s total infections now stand at 55,902, with 793 deaths. 

Elsewhere, US cases rose on Christmas Day by the smallest amount in almost two months, though the numbers were likely skewed by the holiday. South Africa reported its third straight day of record cases, while rejecting allegations that a new variant there had spurred a second wave of infections in the UK.

Russia passed 3 million cases, making it the fourth country after the US, India and Brazil to pass that mark. Hospital admissions in New York City continued to rise as the rate of positive tests showed no sign of slowing.

President Donald Trump was expected to sign an order forcing anyone flying from the UK to the US to have a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours of boarding.

France, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland and Japan joined a growing number of countries that have identified their first cases of the coronavirus mutation, although there’s no clear evidence it results in more severe cases of the disease.

Vaccine rollouts

European Union nations began taking delivery of Pfiozer-BioNTech vaccines on Saturday, following approval of the jab by the bloc’s regulators. The first vaccinations are scheduled to start on Sunday. 

The 27-country bloc has secured enough doses for its entire population of 450 million. More vaccines will be rolled out “very soon” once they are proved safe and effective, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, while cautioning that immunisation would be a gradual process and care is still needed.

“Once enough people have been vaccinated, we can start traveling, meeting our friends and family again and have normal holidays, which we all long for,” she said in a video message to mark what she called “Delivery Day”.

“But until then we have to continue being careful,” she added. “We have to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the virus.”

France took delivery of its first doses of the Pfizer vaccine early Saturday at the central pharmacy hub of a Paris hospital chain.

After more than 62,000 Covid-19 deaths in France, shots are set to begin with people in two elderly care homes on Sunday, the same day the rest of the EU begins injections.

Spain also received its first doses of the Pfizer vaccine on Saturday, a day before the country is set to begin its immunisation campaign.

Spain will receive 4.5 million Pfizer doses over the next 12 weeks, enough to vaccinate 2.3 million people. It plans to start with elderly residents and staff in nursing homes, then health workers and other vulnerable people such as the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.

Spain has been one of Europe’s worst-hit countries by the pandemic, with the virus infecting over 1.8 million people and causing nearly 50,000 deaths. 

Hungary started vaccinating healthcare workers with the Pfizer vaccine on Saturday.

The country received its first shipment of vaccines Saturday morning that will be enough to inoculate 4,875 people, the state news agency MTI reported.

Sydney beaches shut

Australian authorities extended a lockdown for Sydney’s Northern Beaches until at least Dec 30 as a cluster of Covid infections grows.

Some 250,000 people in the area should remain at home except for essential medical care and provisions, but will be able to gather outside for exercise with five or 10 people depending on whether they’re in the worst-affected areas, the New South Wales state government said on Saturday.

Nine new cases were recorded overnight — with eight linked to the outbreak — taking the cluster’s total size to 116.

Russia okays Sputnik V for elderly

Russia’s health ministry has allowed the use of the Sputnik V vaccine for mass vaccination of those older than 60.

The announcement came as the country reported 29,258 more infections in the past day, with cases reaching 3,021,964. Deaths rose by 567 to 54,226.

Russia started a mass vaccination programme domestically for people 18-60 years earlier this month. Authorities have put the effectiveness of the locally developed shot at 91.4%.

HK plans e-booking of vaccines

An electronic platform for Hong Kong residents to book their Covid vaccinations will be ready by next month, which will help create a centralised record of their vaccine history, Secretary for Innovation and Technology Alfred Sit told reporters.

The platform will allow residents to book the first and second doses of the vaccine together, and the vaccination records will be stored on the Hospital Authority and Department of Health system.

Separately, Hong Kong will prioritise vaccinations for the elderly and key personnel, including cross-border truck drivers, and medical and care workers, local media cited a senior government official as saying.

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