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What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

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Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now, writes Linda Noakes.

Asian countries scramble for vaccine supplies

Several Asian countries scrambled to find alternative sources for COVID-19 inoculations on Tuesday (30 March) after export restrictions by manufacturer India left a World Health Organization-backed global vaccine-sharing programme short of supplies.

South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines are among countries to be hit by shipment delays to vaccines they have been promised under the COVAX programme, which was created mainly to ensure supplies for poorer countries.

India, the world’s biggest vaccine maker, put a temporary hold on exports of AstraZeneca’s vaccine being manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, as officials focus on meeting rising domestic demand.

UK wants to vaccinate all adults before sharing shots

Britain will focus on vaccinating the whole of its adult population before it can provide any surplus shots to other countries such as Ireland, British business minister Kwasi Kwarteng said on Tuesday.

More than 30 million Britons have received their first shots in the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe, with the aim of offering shots to all adults by the end of July.

However, Britain has found itself involved in a public spat with the European Union, where the vaccination programme has been much slower, over the supply of doses.

Pfizer and Moderna vaccines 'highly effective' after first dose

COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer with BioNTech and by Moderna reduced risk of infection by 80% two weeks or more after the first of two shots, according to data from a real-world US study released on Monday (29 March).

The risk of infection fell 90% by two weeks after the second shot, the study of nearly 4,000 US healthcare personnel and first responders found.

The results validate earlier studies that had indicated the vaccines begin to work soon after a first dose, and confirm that they also prevent asymptomatic infections.

Queensland warns of more cases

Australia’s Queensland state warned on Tuesday that more cases of COVID-19 were expected to emerge as authorities scrambled to contain an outbreak linked to the virulent UK variant, throwing Easter travel plans into disarray.

Officials reported eight new locally acquired cases on Tuesday, taking the total in the latest outbreak to 15 so far. All of the cases were linked to two distinct virus clusters, one related to a doctor and the second to a nurse.

Brisbane, the state capital, has been placed under a three-day lockdown until Thursday, requiring more than 2 million city residents to stay home except for essential work, healthcare, grocery shopping or exercise.

Vietnam sentences flight attendant for spreading virus

A court in Vietnam handed a two-year suspended jail term to a Vietnam Airlines flight attendant on Tuesday after finding him guilty of breaking quarantine rules and spreading the virus to others, police said.

Duong Tan Hau, 29, was convicted of “spreading dangerous infectious diseases” at the one-day trial at the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City.

Vietnam has been praised for its efforts to contain the virus through mass testing and tracing and strict centralised quarantining. It has recorded fewer than 2,600 COVID-19 infections and only 35 deaths due to the disease.

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EU has not yet ordered more AstraZeneca vaccines, says internal market commissioner

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Syringes are prepared to administer the AstraZeneca coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine at a new mass vaccination centre in WiZink sports arena in Madrid, Spain, April 9, 2021. REUTERS/Sergio Perez

The European Union has not yet made any new orders for AstraZeneca (AZN.L) vaccines beyond June when their contract ends, European Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton (pictured) said on Sunday (9 May).

Breton also said he expected that the costs of the EU’s recent order for more doses of Pfizer-BioNTech (PFE.N) vaccines would be higher than the earlier versions.

The Commission last month launched legal action against AstraZeneca for not respecting its contract for the supply of COVID-19 vaccines and for not having a “reliable” plan to ensure timely deliveries.

"We did not renew the order after June. We’ll see what happens," said Breton, adding that it was "a very good vaccine".

Concerns has risen on potential side-effects of the Anglo-Swedish COVID-19 vaccine.

Europe's medicines regulator said on Friday it is reviewing reports of a rare nerve-degenerating disorder in people who received the shots, a move that comes after it found the vaccine may have caused very rare blood clotting cases. Read more.

Breton said an increase in prices for second generation vaccines could be justified by the extra research required and potential changes to industrial equipment.

The European Union signed a new contract with Pfizer-Biontech to receive 1.8 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines for 2021-2023, to cover booster shots, donations and reselling of doses, the European Commission said on Friday (7 May). Read more.

“There may be a little extra cost but I will let the competent authorities unveil it in due course,” he told France Inter radio.

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Hoping to lure back tourists, Greece reopens beaches after lockdown

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With widely spaced sun loungers and regular disinfections, Greece reopened its organised beaches on Saturday as the popular Mediterranean holiday destination eases COVID-19 curbs in preparation for the return of foreign visitors this week.

Tourism accounts for about a fifth of Greece's economy and jobs, and - after the worst year on record for the industry last year - the country can ill afford another lost summer. Read more

"We're pinning our hopes on tourism," said Nikos Venieris, who manages a sandy beach in the seafront suburb of Alimos, just outside the capital, Athens, where social distancing measures will remain in place.

"We're one of the places along the Athens riviera ... that receives many tourists so the number of visitors from abroad will play a big role in our finances," he added.

Under current measures, beach managers like Venieris will have to place umbrellas at least four metres (13 feet), carry out regular disinfections and test beach bar employees and other staff for COVID-19.

People enjoy the sun during the official reopening of beaches to the public, following the easing of measures against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Athens, Greece, May 8, 2021. REUTERS/Costas Baltas
People enjoy the sea during the official reopening of beaches to the public, following the easing of measures against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Athens, Greece, May 8, 2021. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

Greece fared well in keeping the first wave of the pandemic under control last year but a resurgence in cases pushed health services to the limit and prompted authorities to impose a second lockdown in November.

As infections have fallen and vaccinations gathered pace, authorities have steadily eased restrictions, opening bars and restaurants earlier this week.

On Friday, they announced that museums would reopen next week before the lifting of travel restrictions on vaccinated foreign visitors on May 15.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has said a combination of widespread testing, immunisation, and the fact that many activities would take place outdoors gave authorities confidence that tourists would be able to visit safely.

For Greek beach lovers, Saturday's reopening of the country's largest beaches was a chance to let off steam after months of lockdown.

"We've been longing for this for six months now, because we're winter swimmers and we've really missed it," said Spiros Linardos, a pensioner, reclining on a sun lounger at Alimos.

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EU calls on US and others to export their vaccines

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during the opening ceremony of an EU summit at the Alfandega do Porto Congress Center in Porto, Portugal May 7, 2021. Luis Vieira/Pool via REUTERS

The European Commission called on Friday (7 May) on the United States and other major COVID-19 vaccine producers to export what they make as the European Union does, rather than talk about waiving intellectual property rights to the shots.

Commission head Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference on the sidelines of a summit of EU leaders that discussions on the waiver would not produce a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine in the short- to medium-term.

"We should be open to lead this discussion. But when we lead this discussion, there needs to be a 360 degree view on it because we need vaccines now for the whole world," she said.

"The European Union is the only continental or democratic region of this world that is exporting at large scale," von der Leyen said.

She said about 50% of European-produced coronavirus vaccine is exported to almost 90 countries, including those in the World Health Organization-backed COVAX program.

"And we invite all those who engage in the debate of a waiver for IP rights also to join us to commit to be willing to export a large share of what is being produced in that region," she said.

Only higher production, removing exports barriers and the sharing of already-ordered vaccines could immediately help fight the pandemic quickly, she said.

"So what is necessary in the short term and the medium term: First of all vaccine sharing. Secondly export of vaccines that are being produced. And the third is investment in the increasing of the capacity to manufacture vaccines."

Von der Leyen said the European Union had started its vaccine sharing mechanism, citing delivery of 615,000 doses to the Western Balkans as an example.

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