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India starts huge vaccine drive as European rollout stutters

By AFP - Jan 17,2021 - Last updated at Jan 17,2021

A medical worker inoculates a colleague with a COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at the Rajawadi Hospital in Mumbai on Saturday (AFP photo)

NEW DELHI — India kicked off one of the world's largest coronavirus vaccination drives on Saturday, as US drugs giant Pfizer moved to calm fears in the European Union about delays to deliveries of their vaccine.

The United Nations is intensifying its push to speed up vaccine rollout globally, particularly to poorer countries, as officially recorded virus deaths surged past 2 million overnight.

"I have seen people dying," said Santa Roy, a health worker who was one of the first to receive a jab in Kolkata, telling AFP he now saw a "ray of hope".

The virus continued to play havoc with the sporting calendar, with 47 players barred from practising for a fortnight ahead of the Australian Open (AO), the first grand slam tournament of the year.

Passengers on two charter flights that brought them to Melbourne tested positive for COVID-19.

"Sorry but this is insane," tweeted French player Alize Cornet, adding: "Soon, half of the players from the AO will actually have to isolate."


Europe's 'credibility' concern 


India, home to 1.3 billion people, has the world's second-largest number of recorded cases behind the United States.

The government has approved two vaccines — though one is yet to complete clinical trials — and aims to inoculate 300 million people by July.

The government says it has about 150,000 specially trained staff involved in the rollout and has ramped up security to avoid doses ending up on the black market.

While India pledges huge strides in its rollout, Europe’s efforts continued to stutter.

Pfizer tried to allay concern among EU states that shipments of its vaccines would slow down during January because of work at its Belgian plant to increase production capacity.

A statement from Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech said the work would allow them to “significantly” scale up production of the vaccines in the second quarter.

Deliveries would be back to the original schedule to the European Union from the week of January 25, they pledged.

But in hard-hit Europe, there are concerns that the Pfizer delays could further slow a vaccine rollout that has already faced heavy criticism.

Ministers from several Nordic and Baltic countries said in a joint letter that the situation was “unacceptable” and “decreases the credibility of the vaccination process”.


Austrian anger 


As cases mount, nations from Italy to Brazil have doubled down on restrictions and many places have tightened travel curbs in a bid to control new strains of the virus emerging in Brazil and South Africa.

In some countries, resentment is on the rise.

Roughly 10,000 people marched in Austria’s capital Vienna calling on the government to resign.

“The numbers of deaths we’re being given, that’s rubbish,” one woman, who gave her first name as Gabi told AFP. “I don’t want to end up like China where you don’t have any right to do anything.”

China, which had all but wiped out the virus, is battling a new cluster near Beijing with a series of lockdowns in force, and it extended its isolation period for overseas arrivals on Saturday.

Chinese pharmaceutical giant Sinopharm has claimed that ongoing tests showed its vaccine to be effective against the variant first detected in Britain.

Serbia announced Saturday it had received a million doses of the Chinese vaccine, one of the first European countries to do so. And Beijing promised half-a-million doses to the Philippines.


‘Out of control’ 


US President-elect Joe Biden vowed on Friday to harness the full strength of the government in a vaccine blitz.

His administration will set up thousands of immunisation sites, deploying mobile clinics and expanding the public health workforce.

Known US infections have surpassed 23 million with deaths approaching 400,000 and ripping through the world’s largest economy.

California has been particularly hard hit in recent weeks, with so many deaths in some parts of the state that funeral homes are running out of capacity.

Boyd Funeral Home in Los Angeles has begun turning away customers for the first time in its history.

“It’s sad. But that’s pretty much how it is now,” said owner Candy Boyd.

“Things are getting more and more out of control.”

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