|US President Joe Biden answers a question during his first press briefing in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 25, 2021. Biden said Thursday that the United States will "respond accordingly" if North Korea escalates its missile testing.(Jim WATSON / AFP) |
British-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca could be among the pharmaceutical companies hit first as EU chief Ursula von der Leyen warned that her bloc would not allow Covid vaccine exports to the UK and other countries until the firms make good on their own promised deliveries.
"I think it is clear that first of all the company (AstraZeneca) has to catch up, has to honour the contract it has with the European member states, before it can engage again in exporting vaccines," von der Leyen told a news conference.
The focus of the latest row is an AstraZeneca plant in the Netherlands, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government claims as part of the British vaccine supply chain.
As the EU met via videoconference Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron aligned himself with von der Leyen, despite some countries' -- including the Netherlands and Belgium -- hesitancy to impose an embargo.
"The supply chains are so intricate, they're so intertwined, so it's not automatically a good thing if this new instrument is to be applied," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said, citing the example of a Belgian plant making BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines that relies on raw materials from Britain.
Von der Leyen released updated figures on how many vaccine doses the bloc has exported -- 77 million to 33 countries since December.
By contrast, 88 million doses will have been delivered in the 27-nation bloc by the end of this week, also since December.
But estimates for the second quarter of this year showed that 360 million doses should be delivered from BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.
In contrast to Europe's woes, vaccinations in the United States -- the world's top economy and hardest-hit country in the pandemic -- have been storming ahead, with Biden raising his goal for shots in arms during his first 100 days in office from 100 to 200 million.
"I know it's ambitious, twice our original goal," he told his first press conference since taking office on January 20.
"But no other country in the world has even come close -- not even close -- to what we are doing, and I believe we can do it."
- Covax delays -
The AstraZeneca situation became even more complicated when the company was forced to review its US trials and then slightly revise down the jab's efficacy at preventing symptomatic Covid from 79 percent to 76 percent, after an American agency raised concerns about what it called outdated information.
It remains 100 percent effective against severe Covid, it added.
The shot was hailed as a breakthrough because it is cheaper and easier to store and transport than other vaccines.
AstraZeneca is also one of the main vaccines used in the Covax project, which supplies poorer countries with jabs, and is facing export delays in India where it is produced by the Serum Institute.
A co-founder of the global scheme to provide vaccines for poor people said Thursday that India was delaying exports of much-needed jabs.
The Gavi alliance, a Covax co-founder, said deliveries of vaccines to lower-income economies will face delays because of a "setback" in obtaining export licences from the Indian government.
A Gavi spokesman said the licence delays "are due to the increased demand of Covid-19 vaccines in India".
The vast country recorded more than 50,000 new coronavirus cases on Thursday for the first time since November and is struggling to keep up with its own faltering vaccine drive at home.
- Grim milestones -
The widening gap for vaccine access complicates the world's eventual exit from the pandemic through a global immunisation drive, as third waves sweep through several countries and force governments to reimpose tough anti-virus restrictions, including Germany, Poland, France, Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands.
Central and Eastern Europe have been particularly hard-hit, with Ukraine posting a record number of Covid fatalities for the third straight day and Hungary registering the world's highest death rate per 100,000 inhabitants over the last week.
Brazil surpassed 100,000 new Covid-19 cases in one day Thursday, the latest grim record the country has marked as the second-hardest hit country in the world behind the United States -- and just one day after the country hit 300,000 total recorded deaths since the start of the pandemic.
And third-hardest hit country Mexico surpassed 200,000 coronavirus deaths Thursday.
The bleak milestone comes despite a decline in new cases and deaths in recent weeks, following a surge in January that pushed many hospitals to the breaking point, though health officials worry about the potential of another wave after Easter.
- 'Together again' -
The pandemic has claimed more than 2.7 million lives worldwide, hammered the global economy and left much of humanity under punishing restrictions.
But in some parts of the world, vaccinations have brought joy back after a tough year.
"We were just waiting to be all together again because we were really sad to be divided like that, floor by floor," said Lydie, a 91-year-old retirement home resident in France's Val-de-Marne, where vaccinations have allowed an easing of curbs.
"There was no joy. Now it's very good. We are happy."