The EU said Monday it is working to secure a big increase in Covid vaccine supplies from next month to recover from a disappointingly slow start to its jabs rollout.
The urgency of the push was underlined by Italy announcing that its toll of virus deaths had topped 100,000.
Meanwhile, former EU member Britain reopened its schools as a tough lockdown and successful first-jabs programme brought daily infection numbers down 90 percent from where they were two months ago.
Signs of economic revival in the US — where vaccinated people can now mingle unmasked per the latest medical recommendation — also point to the world’s wealthier countries aiming for a mid-year bounceback from the pandemic.
But people in other countries and territories are struggling, including in Syria where President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma tested positive for Covid-19.
Israel — which has reopened restaurants and bars after fully inoculating 44 percent of its population — has begun to vaccinate Palestinians holding work permits.
Around the world, almost 305 million vaccine doses have been injected, according to an AFP count at 1200 GMT Monday, with the US in the lead in absolute terms at 90 million doses.
Global leisure travel remains devastated, with the UN’s World Tourism Organization saying nearly one in three destinations remain completely closed to international tourists.
But tourist-dependent countries are taking steps to ease restrictions ahead of a hoped-for return of vaccinated visitors.
Thailand will from April halve its hotel quarantine period to one week for vaccinated arrivals.
Vaccinated Israelis will avoid quarantine in both Greece and Cyprus, while the latter will also welcome vaccinated British tourists.
– Pressure in Europe –
Mounting public pressure to have vaccines unlock a semblance of pre-pandemic life is being felt by Europe’s leaders.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen told a German newspaper, Stuttgarter Nachrichten, that vaccine deliveries to the European Union should double between April and June compared to the first three months of 2021, to 300 million doses.
Even though that is 100 million fewer than projected in a February summit of EU leaders, she stands by her goal to see 70 percent of adults in the EU fully vaccinated by mid-September.
But von der Leyen told another German paper, Wirtschaftswoche, that to get there the bloc could halt further vaccine exports, after Italy last week stopped an AstraZeneca shipment to Australia.
“That was not a one-off,” she warned.
That ban was under an EU mechanism created in January to prevent vaccine-makers under contract with the bloc under-delivering to Europe while meeting commitments elsewhere.
Von der Leyen has felt the heat from a failed first-quarter rollout that depended largely on Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca, which supplied just a fraction of the 100 million doses it was contracted to deliver to the EU.
Over this year and next, the EU has pre-purchased 2.6 billion doses — more than enough for the EU’s total 450 million population, with the extra eventually to go to poorer neighbouring and African countries.
The portfolio covers the three vaccines currently authorised for the EU, from BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, as well as ones likely to get approval — Johnson & Johnson, Curevac and Sanofi-GSK — and candidate vaccines from Novavax and Valneva.
Yet according to the last official figures from February 26, EU countries have received 51.5 million doses, and administered 29.2 million of them, roughly two-thirds as first jabs and one-third as second jabs.
After initially restricting AstraZeneca’s shot to under-65s, Italy on Monday authorised it for all adults, following in the steps of France, Germany, Belgium and Denmark.
Romania also dropped advice that the AstraZeneca shot should only be given to under-55s.
– ‘Russian roulette‘ –
To further ensure supplies of all approved vaccines, the EU’s pointman on clearing production bottlenecks, industry commissioner Thierry Breton, on Monday held talks with his US counterpart Jeffrey Zients on ways to ensure vaccine supply chains are unimpeded across the Atlantic.
The US and the EU are vaccine powerhouses, traditionally supplying most of the world. While the US has a blanket export ban on vaccines and ingredients, the EU’s mechanism is only for finished vaccines.
The focus for Brussels and Washington is on the vaccines developed in Western countries, whose clinical data is fully available to medical authorities and whose production facilities fall under EU or US jurisdiction.
But the EU is also having to fend off growing interest by some of its hard-hit member states — such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and possibly Austria — in Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
The European Medicines Agency has started a rolling review of that vaccine.
But the head of the EMA’s management board, Christa Wirthumer-Hoche, warned on Austrian television that EU countries authorising it before the process was complete would be playing “Russian roulette” with their citizens’ health.