World looks to spring for virus relief as vaccinations start
The developed world could start to emerge from the deadly grip of the pandemic by late spring if the first wave of Covid-19 vaccines are deployed effectively, scientists say. Even so, infection rates are likely to remain high for some time.
More than 1.1 million people have been vaccinated in the US, UK, China and Russia, according to Bloomberg data, with the European Union expected to approve its first shot this coming week. As many as three vaccines could be available in the West by year-end, leaving governments and scientists hopeful the pandemic could start to turn a corner in the first half of 2021.
“The one big victory we had about this outbreak was the extraordinary performance of getting vaccines available in less than a year,” Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview.
While China has also deployed vaccines, it and other Asian nations have effectively parried the pandemic with measures such as mass testing, masks and social distancing.
With older people and health-care workers among the priority groups in the vaccine drive, a decrease in the number of deaths and hospitalizations will likely be the first sign the inoculations are having an impact. But with little known about how well the shots might prevent transmission, it could take much longer to bring down infection rates.
“The numbers of deaths should start to decrease slowly as the number vaccinated increases,” said Graham Medley, a professor of infectious disease modeling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of the UK government’s Covid-19 advisory panel. But “if the vaccines do not stop transmission, then we will not see the numbers of infections change much.”
With more than 310,000 deaths from Covid-19, the US has the most fatalities. Infections in the US have topped 17 million, with more than a million new cases occurring in the past week alone. More than 3,600 Americans died Wednesday, according to John Hopkins University.
Across Europe, nearly 376,000 people have died from Covid-19, according to the latest weekly figures from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, with Italy and the UK suffering the most fatalities. The delay from the EU in approving the first vaccine has led to frustration from some corners, particularly in Germany, where the leading Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE shot was pioneered.
European countries have moved in and out of lockdown as governments sought to contain rising infection rates and protect health systems in the face of additional winter pressures. Germany re-introduced lockdown measures this week, with all non-essential shops closed, after the country recorded its highest number of new cases since the pandemic began. In the UK, more than half the country is under the strictest curbs, with full shutdowns planned in Wales and Northern Ireland after Christmas.
The UK and US both cleared the Pfizer vaccine this month, with the US also approving a second shot from Moderna Inc. on Friday. A third vaccine from AstraZeneca Plc and the University of Oxford may be approved in the UK before the end of the year, or in early 2021. Together, the shots comprise a significant portion of global supplies and would go some way to getting the pandemic under control once deployed at scale.
Even so, countries may need to keep social distancing restrictions in place through March or April to prevent hospitals from getting overwhelmed, said James Naismith, a professor of structural biology at Oxford University. Warmer weather, which would let people spend more time outside, should help Europe turn a corner by late spring, he said.
“It’s a seesaw, and we’ll be on that seesaw until the vaccine changes the rules of the game,” said Naismith. “Hopefully by the time we get to spring, we can have a permanently lower level of restrictions. We may not get rid of them all at once, but the restrictions should be less.”
The pace of change will partly depend on whether more vaccines get approved and the level of vaccine hesitancy among populations. Germany is planning to administer 11 million to 13 million doses in the first quarter -- assuming the front-runner shots get cleared -- but it could accelerate that schedule if regulators sign off on vaccines from developers such as AstraZeneca and CureVac NV, Health Minister Jens Spahn said at a press conference Friday.
Still, it will take months before everyone who wants a shot will be able to get one, Spahn said, adding that measures like social distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing will be necessary for the foreseeable future.
How quickly the world emerges from the pandemic will also depend on how soon developing nations get vaccines, said David King, the UK’s former chief scientific adviser.
“Where will we be by Easter? I think we’ll still be on the road,” said King. “We have the problem in a globalized economy that we actually depend on the health of people in other countries,” and developing nations will inevitably have last dibs on a vaccine.
Things could get worse before they get better. As governments relax rules over Christmas, there’s the potential for infection rates to surge like they did in the US after Thanksgiving, leading to more deaths, according to Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. It’s really important people remember they could get a vaccine soon, he said.
“I understand pandemic fatigue. I have that,” said Osterholm, who is advising President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team on the virus. But people must keep following the rules for the “few short months” until vaccines are more widely available, he said.
Massive opposition to the army’s takeover has evolved into what some U.N. experts characterize as a civil war. The new armed rebel groups opposed to the takeover have allied themselves with some of the major ethnic minority guerrilla organizations, stretching the military's resources. Offering generous peace terms to the ethnic groups could shake the anti-government alliances.
Canada announced Friday a ban on trade in luxury goods with Russia, and added 14 more Russian oligarchs and other associates of President Vladimir Putin to its sanctions list imposed over the invasion of Ukraine. The ban aligns with similar measures imposed by allies such as the United States and the European Union, and "will help to mitigate the potential for Russian oligarchs to circumvent restrictions in other luxury goods markets," the government said.
The UN human rights Michelle Bachelet's six-day China visit -- the first since 2005 -- beginning Monday will include a trip to the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang, where China has been accused of human rights violations. Bachelet will be in China between May 23 and 28 during which she will visit Urumqi and Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and the southern province of Guangzhou.
Russian supply of natural gas to Finland will be cut on Saturday morning, Finnish and Russian energy companies said Friday, after the Nordic country refused to pay supplier Gazprom in rubles. Gazprom Export, the exporting arm of Russian gas giant Gazprom, said it had not received payment for gas supplied in April and would therefore halt deliveries from Saturday. Gazprom Export said it would defend its interests in court by any "means available".
India has sent additional aide to economic crisis-hit neighbour Sri Lanka which will reach Colombo on Sunday, the Indian high commission in Sri Lanka tweeted. “People of #India, standing by their brethren in #SriLanka. Rice, milk powder and medicines worth more than SLR 2billion is scheduled to reach #Colombo on Sunday. The consignment was flagged off from #Chennai by CM of Tamil Nadu @mkstalin on Wednesday,” the Indian mission posted on its Twitter handle.