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EU's marathon COVID vaccination drive off to uneven start

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The EU’s campaign to vaccinate Europeans against COVID-19 has got off to an uneven start in what will be a marathon effort to administer shots to enough of the bloc’s 450 million people to defeat the viral pandemic, write and

In one mishap, eight workers at a care home in Stralsund on the north German coast were injected with five times the recommended dose of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. Four were hospitalised.

“I deeply regret the incident. This individual case is due to individual errors. I hope that all those affected do not experience any serious side effects,” district chief Stefan Kerth said on Monday (28 December).

In southern Germany, officials had to send back about 1,000 doses after finding they had been transported in cool boxes typically used for picnics or camping trips that failed to keep the vaccine cold enough.

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The EU vaccination drive kicked off at the weekend, with health workers and residents of care homes across the bloc among the first to get the shots from Pfizer, which must be stored at ultra-cold temperatures.

In Italy, meanwhile, some politicians complained that Germany - the EU’s largest member state and home to BioNTech - may be getting more than its fair share of shots.

The EU is due to receive its first 12.5 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine by New Year’s Day, with distribution of 200 million doses across its 27 member countries to be completed by next September. The vaccine course requires two doses.

A spokesman for Pfizer declined to comment on specific schedules or whether the timeline indicated by the Commission represented a delay. “Our timelines are aspirational and can shift based on capacity and manufacturing timelines,” he said.

Talks are under way to agree on the delivery of an optional further 100 million doses under the contract sealed with the two companies, the EU said.

German vaccination campaign overshadowed by mishaps

The initial glitches highlight the challenge in rolling out the vaccine while regulators consider approving other vaccines, including from Moderna and AstraZeneca, which are easier to transport and store.

The rollout of the Pfizer shot in the United States has been slow, putting the government’s target of 20 million vaccinations this month in doubt, as hospitals navigate preparing the previously frozen shots for use, finding staff to run clinics and ensuring proper social distancing.

As well as being the first COVID-19 vaccine to be delivered across the EU, the Pfizer shot is particularly tricky to handle. For long-term storage it needs to be deep frozen at about minus 70 Celsius (minus 94 Fahrenheit).

It can be defrosted for a few days before being used, but even then must be kept chilled at between 2C and 8C.

In southern Germany, officials said they would not use some shots after temperature trackers in cool boxes showed they may not have been kept cold enough.

“There were doubts as to whether the cold chain was maintained at all times,” said Christian Meissner, district administrator in the Bavarian town of Lichtenfels.

“BioNTech said that the vaccine was probably okay, but ‘probably okay’ is not enough,” he told Reuters TV.

The lapse happened after the doses were handed over to the local authorities. BioNTech declined to comment.

In Spain, delivery of a new batch from Pfizer was held up by a day to Tuesday due to a temperature issue that has now been resolved, Health Minister Salvador Illa said.

Maria Asuncion Ojeda, a resident at Madrid’s Ballesol Parque Almansa nursing home, was still delighted to be an early recipient of the Pfizer vaccine.

“I wanted to do it because it’s the only way we can solve this problem,” the 87-year-old said on Monday, a day after Spain began vaccinating care-home residents and their staff.

The EU is distributing jointly procured vaccines on a pro-rata basis to the 27 member states based on their populations, while some European countries have also made their own deals to buy extra doses separately.

In Italy, some politicians said Germany appeared to be getting more than its fair share, at least during the highly symbolic initial rollout.

“The accounts don’t add up,” Italian virologist Roberto Burioni said on Twitter, pointing to reports in Germany that first-day deliveries had totalled more than 150,000 doses while other EU countries got just 10,000.

An official familiar with vaccine distribution in Germany said that each of the 16 German federal states had received 10,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine ahead of the weekend start of the inoculation drive.

An Italian reporter asked about the supplies at a German government news conference. An official from the German health ministry replied that Berlin had signed a separate deal for 30 million extra doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

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Norway again postpones end to COVID lockdown

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A man wearing a protective mask carries shopping bags as he walks on the streets of Oslo following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Oslo, Norway. NTB Scanpix/Hakon Mosvold Larsen via REUTERS

Norway postponed for a second time on Wednesday (28 July) a planned final step in the reopening of its economy from pandemic lockdown, due to the continued spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19, the government said, writes Terje Solsvik, Reuters.

"A new assessment will be made in mid-August," Health Minister Bent Hoeie told a news conference.

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Measures that will be kept in place to halt the spread of COVID-19 include bars and restaurants being limited to table service and limits of 20 people on gatherings in private homes.

The government in April launched a four-step plan to gradually remove most pandemic restrictions, and had completed the first three of those steps by mid-June.

On July 5, Prime Minister Erna Solberg said the fourth step could come in late July or early August at the earliest because of concerns about the Delta coronavirus variant. Read more.

About 80% of adults in Norway have received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 41% of adults are fully vaccinated, according to the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

Thanks to an early lockdown in March 2020 and tight restrictions that followed, the nation of 5.4 million people has seen one of Europe's lowest rates of mortality from the virus. Some 800 Norwegians have died from COVID-19.

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EU signs deal with GSK for supply of potential COVID drug

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Company logo of pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline is seen at their Stevenage facility, Britain October 26, 2020. REUTERS/Matthew Childs/File Photo

The European Union has signed a contract with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK.L) for the supply of up to 220,000 treatments of its investigational monoclonal antibody therapy sotrovimab against COVID-19, it said on Wednesday (28 July), write Francesco Guarascio with additional reporting by Jo Mason, Reuters.

The drug, which is developed together with U.S. firm Vir Biotechnology (VIR.O), can be used for the treatment of high-risk coronavirus patients with mild symptoms who do not require supplemental oxygen, according to the Commission.

The deal is a boost to GSK work on potential treatments for COVID-19 after the company played a limited role in the development of vaccines. Rather than making its own coronavirus shot, GSK has focused on supplying its booster to other developers and has partnered with Sanofi (SASY.PA) to develop a jab.

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GSK confirmed the deal in a statement on Wednesday, saying it represented "a crucial step forward for treating cases of COVID-19" in Europe.

The drug is currently being assessed by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) under a rolling review.

It has received emergency authorisation in the United States to treat mild-to-moderate COVID-19 patients who are at high risk of developing a severe infection.

The contract has been backed by 16 of the 27 EU states, which can buy the drug only after it is approved by EMA or by national drug regulators. The price agreed for potential purchases has not been disclosed. A spokesman for the Commission declined to comment on the matter.

Monoclonal antibodies mimic natural antibodies that the body generates to fight infection.

The deal with GSK follows a contract the EU signed in April with Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche (ROG.S) to secure about 55,000 doses of a potential treatment based on a cocktail of monoclonal antibodies developed by Roche together with U.S. drugmaker Regeneron (REGN.O). Read more.

Apart from monoclonal treatments, the only other anti-COVID drug the EU has bought is Gilead's (GILD.O) remdesivir, an antiviral medicine. Last year, the EU reserved half a million courses after the drug obtained a conditional EU approval.

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Coronavirus disinformation: Online platforms take new actions and call for more players to join the Code of Practice

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The Commission has published the reports by Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Microsoft and Google on measures taken in June to combat coronavirus disinformation. The current signatories and the Commission are also calling on new companies to join the Code of Practice on disinformation as it will help broaden its impact and make it more effective. Values and Transparency Vice President Věra Jourová said: “The COVID-19 disinformation monitoring programme has allowed to keep track of important actions put in place by online platforms. With new variants of the virus spreading and vaccinations continuing at full speed, it is crucial to deliver on the commitments. We look forward to the strengthening of the Code of Practice.”

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton added: “The EU stood by its promise to deliver enough doses to safely vaccinate every EU citizen. All stakeholders now need to assume their responsibility to beat vaccine hesitancy spurred by disinformation. While we are strengthening the Code of Practice with platforms and signatories, we are calling for new signatories to join the fight against disinformation”. 

For example, TikTok's campaign supporting vaccination, with the Irish government, reached over one million views and over 20,000 likes. Google continued to work with public health authorities to show information about vaccination locations in Google Search and Maps, a feature available in France, Poland, Italy, Ireland, and Switzerland. On Twitter, users can now train automated systems to better identify violations of the platform's COVID-19 disinformation policy.

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Microsoft extended its partnership with NewsGuard, an Edge extension that warns about websites spreading disinformation. Facebook cooperated with international health authorities to increase public awareness of vaccine efficacy and safety and with Michigan State University (MSU) researchers to better detect and attribute deepfakes. These joint efforts need to continue in view of the persisting and complex challenges that online disinformation still presents. The Commission's COVID-19 disinformation monitoring programme has been extended until the end of 2021 and reports will now be published every two months. The next set of reports will be published in September. Following the recently published Guidance, the signatories have kicked off the process to strengthen the Code and launched a joint call for interest for potential new signatories.

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