Covid-19 vaccines: France eases ban on AstraZeneca for over-65s

World updates: China aims to vaccinate 40% by end of July; Fauci backs two-shot strategy

A Sri Lankan health worker prepares to inject a first dose of a Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine shot at a regional medical clinic in Colombo, Sri Lanka, March 1st 2021. Photograph: Chamila Karunarathne/EPA

A Sri Lankan health worker prepares to inject a first dose of a Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine shot at a regional medical clinic in Colombo, Sri Lanka, March 1st 2021. Photograph: Chamila Karunarathne/EPA

 

Global cases of coronavirus rose for the first time in almost two months in the past week, the World Health Organisation said, citing countries easing restrictions, people letting their guard down and variants spreading.

Here are the latest updates on Covid-19 and vaccination progress from around the world:

FRANCE

People in France aged over 65 with existing health problems can be given the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, France’s health minister said on Monday, departing from Paris’s earlier stance that the vaccine should be for under-65s only.

When the AstraZeneca vaccine was approved for use by European Union regulators, France mandated it would only go to eligible people under 65 because data from trials in older age groups was limited.

French president Emmanuel Macron was quoted as telling journalists the AstraZeneca vaccine was “quasi-effective” for over-65s. That position contrasted with Britain, which was first to roll out the AstraZeneca vaccine and approved it for use in all age categories.

Since that decision, more data from trials has shown the efficacy of the vaccine, while France has also struggled with a shortage of vaccines from its other suppliers, Pfizer and Moderna.

Speaking to broadcaster BFMTV, French minister for health Olivier Veran said: “Anybody aged 50 or over who is affected by co-morbidities can get the AstraZeneca vaccine, including those between 65 and 74.”

People aged 75 and over would continue to get the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines only, Mr Veran said.

CANADA

Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization released new guidelines on Monday that advise against vaccinating people who are 65 years and older with AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine, citing lack of information about efficacy in that age group.

The vaccine was authorised for people who are 18 and older by drug regulator Health Canada on Friday. The committee’s recommendations are not binding, but may influence provincial vaccination plans.

Health Canada’s decision noted that available clinical trial data was too limited to reliably estimate how well the vaccine worked in people 65 and older.

But it also said “emerging real world evidence” in places that had already started using the vaccine suggested a potential benefit and no safety concerns.

A preliminary study of Scotland’s vaccination drive published last week suggested AstraZeneca’s shot had been highly effective in preventing severe infections there.

CHINA

China aims to vaccinate 40 per cent of its population against Covid-19 by the end of July, a senior health adviser told Reuters on Tuesday, requiring a significant increase in inoculations even as it ramps up exports of vaccines.

Zhong Nanshan, a coronavirus expert who helped shape China’s Covid-19 response, said on Monday the current ratio of vaccine doses administered per 100 people in China is 3.56, much lower than those in Israel, United Arab Emirates and the United States.

In an online forum held by China’s Tsinghua University and the Washington-based Brookings Institution on Monday, Dr Zhong said the target was 40 per cent by the end of June, citing his contacts at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, in a phone call with Reuters on Tuesday, Dr Zhong clarified that 40 per cent target would be hit in July, after taking into account the proportion of people who do not want to be vaccinated.

The 40 per cent by the end of July would include people who have received either one dose or two doses, Dr Zhong said. Three Chinese-made vaccines require two shots, while another one requires a single dose.

China, which has approved four locally developed coronavirus vaccines for use on the general public, had administered 50.52 million doses as of February 28th, Dr Zhong said.

Authorities had aimed to vaccinate 50 million people before the Lunar New Year in February, official media outlet Global Times reported in January.

PHILIPPINES

The Philippines has documented six cases of the South African coronavirus variant, its health ministry said on Tuesday, raising concern among its experts that the current vaccines might be less effective.

The Philippines started its Covid-19 vaccination campaign on Monday, an important milestone for a country among the hardest hit by the pandemic in Asia, but the discovery of another variant could complicate its recovery effort.

“While there is no evidence that this variant causes more severe disease, the pattern of mutations within this variant suggests higher transmissibility and may have an impact on vaccine efficacy,” the health ministry said in a statement.

Of the six cases with the South African variant, three were detected locally and two were Filipinos returning from overseas. The origin of the other case was still being verified.

The Philippines has so far found 87 cases with the more transmissible variant.

President Rodrigo Duterte has said he would lift restrictions on businesses and public transport in the capital Manila once the government has secured 20 to 40 million doses of coronavirus vaccines.

Although the Philippines has been in talks with most major manufacturers of coronavirus vaccines to buy a combined 161 million doses, it has struggled to conclude deals, while stiff competition has tightened supply.

Its first shipment of 600,000 doses of Sinovac vaccines on Sunday was a donation from China, part of which will be used to inoculate military personnel.

US

The United States must stick to a two-dose strategy for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines, top US infectious disease official Anthony Fauci has said.

Dr Fauci told the Washington Post newspaper that delaying a second dose to inoculate more Americans creates risks.

He warned that shifting to a single-dose strategy for the vaccines could leave people less protected, enable variants to spread and possibly boost scepticism among Americans already hesitant to get the shots.

“There’s risks on either side,” Dr Fauci was quoted as saying in a report published late on Monday.

“We’re telling people (two shots) is what you should do ? and then we say, ‘Oops, we changed our mind’?” Dr Fauci said. “I think that would be a messaging challenge, to say the least.”

He added that he spoke with UK health officials on Monday who have opted to delay second doses to maximize giving more people shots more quickly. Dr Fauci said that strategy would not make sense in the United States.

He said the science does not support delaying a second dose for those vaccines, citing research that a two-shot regimen creates enough protection to help fend off variants of the coronavirus that are more transmissible, whereas a single shot could leave Americans at risk from variants such as the one first detected in South Africa.

Fauci said on Sunday he was encouraging Americans to accept any of the three available Covid-19 vaccines, including the newly approved Johnson & Johnson shot.

Covid-19 has claimed more than half a million lives in the United States, and states are clamouring for more doses to stem cases, hospitalisations and deaths.

CHILE

Chile plans to ramp up its purchase of vaccines from China’s Sinovac and hopes to sign a deal shortly with Johnson & Johnson, the health minister said on Monday, as the South American nation moves to strengthen its widely lauded coronavirus vaccination campaign.

Chile has jumped ahead of the rest of Latin America and many countries globally with its inoculation programme. The country has already inoculated 3.35 million of its 19 million citizens against Covid-19, officials said on Monday.

Chile’s minister for health Enrique Paris said new talks with Sinovac Biotech Ltd were progressing quickly and that Chile was negotiating a “significant increase” atop the 10 million doses the Chinese pharmaceutical company had already promised the country.

Mr Paris said officials were also discussing contract details with US-based Johnson & Johnson and seeking to firm up a date for initial shipments.

The country moved fast and early to lock down vaccines, signing deals with US-based Pfizer Inc, British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca and Sinovac.

Mr Paris said Chile would soon receive the first batch of 890,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through the global Covax programme.

There have been 20,660 Covid-19 deaths in Chile and more than 825,000 cases. – Reuters/Bloomberg