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VACCINES

EU launches ‘vaccine tracker’ and shifts strategy away from AstraZeneca

The EU's disease agency has launched a Covid-19 vaccine tracking tool, providing an overview of countries' efforts in the rollout of inoculations across Europe. It came as the EU Commission said it was shifting its strategy away from relying on the AstraZeneca vaccine.

EU launches 'vaccine tracker' and shifts strategy away from AstraZeneca
Photo: Ishara S Kodikara/AFP and ECDC (edited by The Local)

The first set of data was available on the website of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), covering the 27-nation bloc plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. 

However it was still incomplete on Monday, as some countries, such as France had yet to report their national data. Member states are expected to report their numbers twice a week.

As a result, the tracker indicated the number of vaccine doses administered in its member states as of Monday was 8.23 million, though in reality the number is much higher.

(Not all countries had uploaded their data as February 2nd. )

According to AFP's own database compiled from official sources, by 1600 GMT Monday, at least 12.6 million doses have been administered to 10.5 million people in the EU, representing 2.3 percent of the population.

“In this early phase of vaccination campaigns, monitoring the number of doses distributed to countries and doses received by individuals provides useful insights into the progress of vaccine deployment and the evolution of vaccination campaigns,” the ECDC said in a statement.

“It also provides initial indicative estimates of vaccine uptake for the first and second dose per population targeted by vaccine recommendations on the national level.”

ECDC Director Andrea Ammon said: “It is with great pleasure that we launch the Vaccine Tracker that provides a near-live view on vaccination progress in Europe. Vaccination campaigns are not to be viewed merely as a race for the largest numbers at the quickest speed. As the rollout progresses, vaccination strategies will need to be flexible and adaptable.”

Move away from AstraZeneca

The European Commission indicated Monday that it is shifting its early Covid-19 vaccination strategy away from AstraZeneca after the Anglo-Swedish company fell far short in its delivery of doses.

The head of the Commission's health directorate, Sandra Gallina, told MEPs the firm has been able to guarantee just 25 percent of the more than 100 million doses promised and that this was “a real issue” for the EU's 27 countries.

“AstraZeneca was going to be the mass vaccine for quarter one,” she said, referring to the first three months of 2021. “The fact that AstraZeneca is not there in the quantities that were stipulated in the contract is quite problematic for all member states.”

Galina added that the Commission was now looking to the vaccines made by BioNTech/Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson to fill the gap.

“There will be many more quantities in quarter two because there will be a new contract that will spring into action. So we will not have only BioNTech and Moderna but we will have BioNTech with a new contract, so it's double the quantities.”

She noted that the new mRNA technology used in the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine and a similar one by Moderna had shown “impressive” efficacy levels of over 90 percent in immunising against Covid.

AstraZeneca, which uses the adenovirus technique, has 60 percent efficacy, according to clinical data parsed by the European Medicines Agency.

Gallina said production of the BioNTech/Pfizer doses could be ramped up using other pharmaceutical companies' facilities, for instance ones offered by French company Sanofi, whose own vaccine bid has hit obstacles. 

“Manufacturing is really the moment when we have a problem of constraint for the vaccines,” Gallina said.

But she emphasised that “the problem will not be having the vaccines, the problem will be vaccination… We need to quickly look at how we can speed up vaccination once the vaccines are there.”

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COVID-19

How much should we be concerned about rising Covid-19 rates in Sweden?

Covid-19 cases are once again escalating in more than a hundred countries, including Sweden, with the new Omicron variants, BA.4 and BA.5, both harder to track and more resistant to vaccines. Should we be worried?

How much should we be concerned about rising Covid-19 rates in Sweden?

How much reason is there to worry that Covid-19 is back? 

It depends if you are an ordinary citizen or a hospital manager. 

Peter Nilsson, an epidemiology professor at Lund University, told The Local that as over 85 percent of the Swedish population had received at least two doses, he did not expect the number becoming seriously ill to return to the levels seen in 2020 and 2021.  

“The Swedish population has a high degree of vaccination immunisation and it is unlikely that the situation will get serious,” he said. 

But there is a nonetheless a risk that the rising rates of infection will put pressure on some hospitals, particularly when many staff are off for their summer breaks. 

“More people will need hospital care as a result, and if healthcare staff fall ill with Covid-19 at the same time as there is holiday staffing at many hospitals and care facilities, this may mean an increased burden on healthcare,” Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Lindblom said in a press release

Patrik Söderberg, the head doctor for the Stockholm Region, warned that the the rise in the number of patients with Covid-19 in hospitals was “a clear step in the wrong direction”. 

How and why are Covid-19 rates rising in Sweden? 

According to the Swedish Public Health Authority, over 3,000 cases of Covid-19 were reported in Sweden in the final two weeks of June, a 41% rise from the two previous weeks.

The reason is that the new BA.5 variant of omicron has become dominant in Sweden, and there is growing evidence that BA.5 is better at infecting both those who have received a vaccine and those who have previously contracted Covid-19. 

There is also clear evidence, however, that vaccinations continue to offer protection against life-threatening conditions and death, even with BA.5, and there is currently no evidence that the variant causes a more severe version of the disease. 

Although Lindblom said it was impossible to predict the length of time the virus would continue to spread, he warned that Sweden could see rising infection rates for several weeks to come. 

What’s been happening outside Sweden? 

According to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, the pandemic is changing, but not over. 

“Cases are on the rise in 110 countries, causing overall global cases to increase by 20%,” he said in a media briefing at the end of last month. “Our ability to track the virus is under threat as reporting and genomic sequences are declining, meaning it’s becoming harder to track Omicron and analyse future emerging variants.”

Some countries have responded by extending or bringing back Covid-19 restrictions. 

China has maintained some of the toughest restrictions, and while other countries have mostly been easing them, but as cases continue to rise, some may soon bring back restrictions such as mandatory masks and stricter contact tracing. 

Italy has extended the need to use masks on public transport until the end of September. Germany and Ireland are thinking about making them mandatory for a few months to curb the new, highly resistant variants.

The WHO and several other organisations are encouraging more vaccination campaigns and booster shots.

So is there a risk of Covid-19 restrictions returning in Sweden too? 

Sweden saw some of the world’s most relaxed regulations during the pandemic, and it looks unlikely that even those will be reimposed. The only change so far is that hospitals have once again made masks mandatory. 

What is being done to keep Covid-19 under control? 

Adults in risk groups and those over 65 are encouraged to take a top-up dose starting on September 1st. A fourth booster will be free for adults of various ages soon after that.

An autumn immunisation policy is also being developed, Anders Lindblom told Svenska Dagbladet, with details to be announced in the coming weeks. 

What Covid-19 recommendations still apply in Sweden? 

  • Everyone above the age of 12 should receive a Covid-19 vaccination, according to the Swedish Public Health Agency. It lessens the chance of developing fatal diseases and dying.
  • Anyone experiencing symptoms such as sore throat, runny nose, fever or cough are recommended to stay at home,  even those who have been vaccinated or who have previously had COVID-19.
  • Unvaccinated people are more likely to suffer significant COVID-19 illness. An unvaccinated person should take extra precautions and stay away from crowded indoor spaces to prevent getting sick.
  • The general population is no longer advised to undergo PCR testing, even if they experience symptoms, with the exception expectant mothers, those working in health and elderly care, and those providing care for patients with weakened immune systems who are at a high risk of developing a serious illness. 
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