The more things change the more they remain the same or, what you gain in the swing you lose on the roundabout. Despite the vaccine, Europe is back where it started, becoming the focal point of the Covid-19 pandemic just as it was in the spring and summer of 2020. However, thanks to the vaccines, the severity is considerably lower than before.
Facing record-breaking rates of the coronavirus infection, several European countries have imposed new restrictions on businesses and residents, especially for those who are not vaccinated, according to a round-up report in science.org (www.science.org/content/article/news-glance-abolished-marine-preserve-cloud-space-debris-and-psychedelic-clinical-trial-success?)
Last week, Austria imposed a new “lockdown” for anyone over the age of 12 who is not fully vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2; they can only leave their homes for work, school, grocery shopping, exercise, medical appointments, or other “important reasons.” Those who break the rules face fines of up to €1,450. Roughly 65% of the country’s population is fully vaccinated. In neighbouring Germany, several regions imposed rules that only allow vaccinated people, or those recently recovered from COVID-19 and, therefore, likely naturally immune, into hair salons, restaurants, bars, theatres, and concerts.
On 12 November, the Netherlands imposed a 3-week partial lockdown in which shops and restaurants close at 8 p.m. and spectators are banned from sporting events. After lifting all pandemic-related restrictions in September, Denmark this week reintroduced the “corona pass” that allows only the vaccinated, recovered, and those with a recent negative coronavirus test into restaurants, bars, and concerts.
Austria on Friday became the first Western democracy to announce that it would mandate Covid vaccinations for its entire adult population as it prepared for a nationwide lockdown starting Monday, the New York Times reports (www.nytimes.com/live/2021/11/19/world/covid-vaccine-boosters-mandates#covid-austria-lockdown)
The extraordinary measure by Austria, which only days ago separated itself from the rest of Europe by introducing a lockdown for the unvaccinated, who are driving a surge of infections, made for another alarming statement about the severity of the fourth wave of the virus in Europe, now the epicentre of the pandemic.
But it also showed that increasingly desperate governments are losing their patience with vaccine skeptics and shifting from voluntary to obligatory measures to promote vaccinations and beat back a virus that shows no sign of waning, rattling global markets at the prospect that still tentative economic recoveries will be undone.
Some European countries, including Germany, which once seemed a model of how to manage the virus, are now facing their worst levels of infections in the nearly two years since the pandemic began. The surge, health authorities say, is being driven by stubborn resistance to getting vaccinated in deep pockets of the population, cold weather driving people indoors, loosened restrictions and possibly waning immunity among those previously vaccinated.
“For a long time — maybe too long — I and others assumed that it must be possible to convince people in Austria to voluntarily get vaccinated,” Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg of Austria said on Friday. “We therefore have reached a very difficult decision to introduce a national vaccine mandate.”
With its latest move, Austria significantly moved ahead of other European countries that have inched up to, but not crossed, a threshold that once seemed unthinkable. The announcement drew an immediate threat of violent protest this weekend by leaders of anti-vaccine movements and the far-right Freedom Party, which compared the government’s latest mandates with those of a dictatorship.
But just as lockdowns have become a fact of life, vaccine mandates are increasingly becoming plausible. German lawmakers in Parliament voted on Thursday to force unvaccinated people going to work or using public transit to provide daily test results. The country’s vaccination rate among adults is about 79%, one of the lowest in Western Europe.
The spectre of a lockdown in Germany, Europe’s largest economy, sent jitters through European markets hungering for economic recovery and sales during the Christmas shopping season.
Austria’s new vaccine mandate will take effect in February, in the hopes that as many people as possible will be motivated to sign up for their initial inoculations, but also booster shots, Austria’s health minister, Wolfgang Mückstein, said.
Under pressure to increase the supply of coronavirus vaccines to poor nations, President Joe Biden plans to invest billions of dollars to expand U.S. manufacturing capacity, with the goal of producing at least one billion doses a year beginning the second half of 2022, two top advisers to Biden said in an interview on Tuesday. (www.nytimes.com/2021/11/17/us/covid-vaccines-supply.html?)
The investment is the first step in a new plan for the government to partner with industry to address immediate vaccine needs overseas and domestically and to prepare for future pandemics, said Dr. David Kessler, who oversees vaccine distribution for the administration, and Jeff Zients, Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator.
The move comes as the Biden administration also plans to buy enough of Pfizer’s new Covid-19 pill for about 10 million courses of treatment to be delivered in the next 10 months, paying over $5 billion, according to people familiar with the agreement. The government has also pledged $3 billion for rapid over-the-counter tests, which are needed to detect the virus early for the Pfizer drug to work.
Taken together, the investments amount to an aggressive effort to vanquish a pandemic that is heading into its third year. When given promptly to trial groups of high-risk unvaccinated people who developed symptoms of the disease, the Pfizer drug sharply reduced the risk of hospitalization and death. Pfizer applied on Tuesday for federal authorization of the drug on an emergency basis.
But the tests are pricey. While federal regulators have cleared a dozen of them, a test typically costs about $12 and not everyone can easily obtain one. One of the newest rapid tests costs $7, though, and by the end of the year the overall supply is projected to be nearly 10 times what it was in August, federal officials said.
The idea for the new public-private vaccine partnership is still in its early stages, and the price tag is uncertain. Dr. Kessler, who has been working on the proposal for months, estimated it at “several billion.” The money has been set aside as part of the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package that Biden signed into law in March.
Meanwhile Pfizer Inc. has signed a deal with a U.N.-backed group to allow other manufacturers to make its experimental COVID-19 pill, a move that could make the treatment available to more than half of the world’s population, the Associated Press reports (www.thehindu.com/news/international/pfizer-agrees-to-let-other-companies-make-its-covid-19-pill/article37521091.ece?)
In a statement issued Tuesday, Pfizer said it would grant a license for the antiviral pill to the Geneva-based Medicines Patent Pool, which would let generic drug companies produce the pill for use in 95 countries, making up about 53% of the world’s population.
The deal excludes some large countries that have suffered devastating coronavirus outbreaks.
For example, while a Brazilian drug company could get a licence to make the pill for export to other countries, the medicine could not be made generically for use in Brazil.
Still, health officials said the fact that the deal was struck even before Pfizer’s pill has been authorized anywhere, could help to end the pandemic sooner.
“It’s quite significant that we will be able to provide access to a drug that appears to be effective and has just been developed, to more than 4 billion people,” Esteban Burrone, head of policy at the Medicines Patent Pool, said.
He estimated that other drug makers would be able to start producing the pill within months, but acknowledged the agreement wouldn’t please everyone.
Under the terms of the agreement, Pfizer will not receive royalties on sales in low-income countries and will waive royalties on sales in all countries covered by the agreement while COVID-19 remains a public health emergency.
Earlier this month, Pfizer said its pill cut the risk of hospitalisation and death by nearly 90% in people with mild to moderate coronavirus infections. At the moment, most COVID-19 treatments must be delivered intravenously or by injection.
In a similar deal with the Medicines Patent Pool announced in October, Merck agreed to let other drug makers make its COVID-19 pill, molnupiravir, available in 105 poorer countries.
Doctors Without Borders said it was “disheartened” that the Pfizer deal does not make the drug available to the entire world, noting that the agreement announced Tuesday also excludes countries including China, Argentina and Thailand.
The decisions by Pfizer and Merck to share their COVID-19 drug patents stands in stark contrast to the refusal of Pfizer and other vaccine-makers to release their vaccine recipes for wider production.
A hub set up by the World Health Organisation in South Africa intended to share messenger RNA vaccine recipes and technologies has not enticed a single pharmaceutical to join.
Fewer than 1% of Pfizer’s COVID-19 shots have gone to poorer countries.
Lalita Panicker is Consulting Editor, Views, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Lalita Panicker is consulting editor, views, Hindustan Times, New Delhi