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EU leaders weigh travel curbs over virus variant fears

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European Union leaders were seeking on Thursday (21 January) to address the coronavirus pandemic’s mounting challenges, including increased calls to limit travel and tighten border controls to contain more infectious variants of the disease, writes .

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said before an evening leaders’ video conference that European countries needed to take the new mutation found in Britain seriously to avoid a third wave.

“We can’t rule out border closures, but want to prevent them though cooperation within the European Union,” she told a news conference in Berlin.

Leaders, who have full control over their own borders, were discussing testing protocols for cross-border commuters, she added.

Alexander De Croo, prime minister of Belgium, where cases per capita are lower than in its neighbours, said he would ask fellow EU leaders to halt non-essential travel, such as tourism.

“The slightest spark could push the figures back up again. We need to protect our good position,” he told broadcaster VRT.

The heads of EU institutions have urged the leaders to maintain unity and step up testing and vaccinations, though Merkel said she expected no formal decisions to be taken at the meeting from 6 p.m. (1700 GMT), the ninth of its kind since the pandemic began.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday that blanket border closures made no sense and were not as effective as targeted measures.

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, whose country relies on commuters from its neighbours, told Deutschlandfunk radio that border closures were wrong in 2020 and still wrong in 2021.

The EU executive also wants member states to agree a common approach to vaccination certificates by the end of January. So a certificate from Estonia would be accepted in Portugal, for example.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis floated the idea last week that they could help restore cross-border travel. Spain is pushing the idea within the EU and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), its foreign minister said on Thursday.

EU diplomats said this was premature as it was not yet clear if vaccinated people could still transmit the virus to others.

“As for (non-EU) third countries, then you’d have to look into whether to accept Russian or Chinese vaccines,” one added.

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India warns of worsening COVID-19 situation, vaccinations to expand

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India announced an expansion of its vaccination programme on Wednesday (24 February) but warned that breaches of coronavirus protocols could worsen an infection surge in many states, write Krishna N. Das and Neha Arora.

Nearly a month after the health minister declared that COVID-19 had been contained, states such as Maharashtra in the west and Kerala in the south have reported a surge in cases, as reluctance grows over mask-wearing and social distancing.

India’s infections are the second highest in the world at 11.03 million, swelled in the past 24 hours by 13,742, health ministry data shows. Deaths rose by a two-week high of 104 to 156,567.

“Any laxity in implementing stringent measures to curb the spread, especially in view of new strains of virus ... could compound the situation,” the ministry said in a statement singling out nine states and a federal territory.

India has confirmed the long-time presence of two mutant variants - N440K and E484Q - in addition to those first detected in Brazil, Britain and South Africa.

The ministry said that while cases in the states of Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Kerala, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab, as well as the federal territory of Jammu and Kashmir, were rising, the proportion of high-accuracy RT-PCR tests in those places was falling. Cases have also risen in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.

In the past week, a third of India’s 36 states and union territories have reported an average of more than 100 new cases each day, with Kerala and Maharashtra both reporting more than 4,000, in a trend experts link to the reopening of schools and suburban train services.

The government has also asked states to speed vaccinations for healthcare and frontline workers. Just about 11 million people have received one or two doses in a campaign that began on Jan. 16, versus a target of 300 million by August.

From March 1, India will start vaccinating people above 60 and those older than 45 with health conditions free of charge in about 10,000 government hospitals and for a fee in more than 20,000 private facilities, the government said.

Earlier on Wednesday, a regulatory panel sought more data from drugmaker Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories for emergency authorisation of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine, a senior official with direct knowledge of the discussions said.

The Central Drugs Standard Control Organization did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for confirmation.

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Denmark to ease some COVID-19 restrictions from 1 March

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Denmark will ease some shopping restrictions and allow schools in parts of the country to reopen on 1 March, the government said on Wednesday (24 February), potentially allowing hospital admissions to triple in the coming month, writes Nikolaj Skydsgaard.

Denmark, which has one of the lowest infection rates in Europe, has seen general infection numbers drop after it introduced lockdown measures in December in a bid to curb a more contagious coronavirus variant.

Based on recommendations from an expert advisory group, the government said stores under 5,000 square metres will be allowed to reopen, while outdoor leisure activities can resume with an upper limit of 25 people.

“More activity will also mean more infected and thus also more hospitalisations,” Health Minister Magnus Heunicke told a press conference.

Heunicke said hospital admissions could briefly peak at some 880 in mid-April, more than triple the current 247.

“It will happen as spring sets in and more and more people get vaccinations.”

Schools in parts of the country will also be allowed to reopen, but will require students to test themselves twice a week.

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EU's von der Leyen tells skittish Europeans: 'I'd take AstraZeneca vaccine'

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The European Union’s most senior administrator said she would happily receive AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine as officials rushed to find ways of ensuring doses refused by skittish Germans did not go to waste, writes Thomas Escritt.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s (pictured) remarks came amid growing concerns that unfavourable comments by top European officials including French President Emmanuel Macron had slowed take-up of one of only three vaccines currently approved EU-wide.

Earlier this month, Macron said Britain had taken a risk in authorizing AstraZeneca so rapidly. A German official study also found evidence that, though effective, the vaccine has more severe side effects than its two main rivals.

“I would take the AstraZeneca vaccine without a second thought, just like Moderna’s and BioNTech/Pfizer’s products,” von der Leyen told the Augsburger Allgemeine.

The endorsement is all the more striking for coming a month after the European Commission that she heads entered into sharp correspondence with AstraZeneca over suggestions, denied by the company, that the British-Swedish company had prioritised Britain over the EU in delivering the vaccine.

The Commission has been criticised over the slow pace of vaccination across the 27-member-bloc, with critics saying it failed to secure sufficient early supply of the vaccines that leaders are banking on to bring an end to the pandemic that has devastated the continent’s economy.

In Germany, where a widespread preference for the German-designed BioNTech vaccine has led to a growing number of unused AstraZeneca doses, officials and politicians competed to suggest ways of making sure they did not go to waste.

Berlin’s Social Affairs Senator Elke Breitenbach said unused doses should be given to the 3,000 homeless living in the city’s emergency accommodation. “We shouldn’t forget those who don’t have a loud lobby behind them,” she told Funke Media Group.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer had earlier said unused vaccines should go to the police.

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