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EU lagging on vaccination efforts

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Consider this: on the day the UK announced it had given the coronavirus jab to 1.5m of its citizens, there were some EU member states yet to vaccinate a single one of their citizens, writes Martin Banks.

These included the Netherlands, which has always prided itself on its health-care system but neighbouring Belgium also pretty much matched the Dutch in terms of rolling out (or not) the vaccine.

Yes, this is the self same Belgium where the vaccine  developed by Pfizer with its German partner BioNTech – the first vaccine to be approved for use in the world – is actually being produced.

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Tens of thousands of the Pfizer vaccine have been pouring out of Puurs, a small town located in the Belgian province of Antwerp.

That is the good news.

The bad news is that hardly any have actually found themselves  to Belgian citizens.

On the day the UK said 1.5m Brits had had the Pfizer jab, little old Belgium was still to formally launch its vaccination campaign.

As a UK newspaper columnist once said: 'You could not make it up.'

Unlike a lot of the “issues” that have taken up our time in recent years (Brexit, the economic crisis….) this one – the pandemic – really does matter.

It is, literally, a matter of life and death and that is why the response to it also matters.

So, what exactly is going on?

Well, let us be clear: the UK was very fast out of the blocks in getting the vaccine out to its people. What is also painfully clear is that the EU – or, perhaps we should say its member states (now  numbering 27 after the UK withdrawal, lest we forget) – has been painfully slow in its roll out.

It could be argued this is partly due to the fact that te EU 27 were all forced to wait for the European Medicines Agency to give approval before any roll out could start.

The newly 'independent' UK has its own authorization authority, as most EU member states do. But because it is no longer tied to the EU,the UK was able to give approval to the vaccine much quicker than the EMA evidently was. It was, subsequently, also able to start the roll out much sooner.

But there is more to it than that. The UK, whatever you may think of Brexit, has made a damn good job of the roll out, thus far.

It has even made a point of drawing on its war time experience as part of its determination to get as many of its citizens vaccinated with one or more of the approved vaccines, and as soon as possible.

And Europe? Well, thus far, the performance by EU member states has been lamentable by comparison.

Two vaccines have now been approved by the  EMA, the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine and another developed by Moderna.

But millions of people all over Europe, including in Belgium where the Pfizer jab is being produced, are complaining about the slow roll out.Imagine how galling it must have been for Belgians to see packages of the vaccine being despatched from the Flemish factory and shipped, via the English Channel, to the UK while they (the Belgians) were still waiting for a single Belgian to be given a jab.

The European commission makes a point of saying it has done its bit in agreeing the contracts with pharma firm like Pfizer and, more recently, Moderna (with more likely to follow soon).

A commission spokesman told this site it had “done the deals” and it was now up to member states to agree with each pharma company how many vaccines they want and the handle the distribution of these to their peoples.

It is, some might argue, a fair point.

Public health is, after all,  primarily a national competence. But it is also clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has tested the relatively limited powers assigned to the Union by the Treaty on the functioning of the EU and the 2013 legal framework for cross-border health threats.

Typically, the “blame game” is underway but the fact is that Europe’s 450 million population desperately need to know that these vaccines are going to become available to them quickly.

Right now, the EU and its member states are being badly embarrassed by the UK (and some other countries too, like Israel) and it/they very urgently need to inject some much needed urgency into their vaccine roll out efforts.

If this is what a country (the UK) can do when it has exited the “constraints” of the European Union, it really makes you fear for the future of the EU.

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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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