US, Europe develop vaccine plans with approval likely soon
The United States and Europe on Tuesday fleshed out plans to administer COVID-19 vaccines as soon as they gain approval, with a US panel recommending that health-care workers and nursing home residents be given top priority.
Hopes are high that shots could be ready for use before the end of the year, with two frontrunner vaccines — by Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer — already seeking emergency use approval on both sides of the Atlantic.
Companies have been racing to find a treatment for the coronavirus, which has killed almost 1.5 million people and infected more than 63 million.
In the United States, an advisery panel of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention proposed that health-care workers and nursing home residents — 24 million people in total — be the first in line for COVID-19 jabs.
Those two groups have accounted for about 40 percent of deaths in the US thus far.
But there won't be one set of rules for the entire nation of 330 million — the federal government can only make recommendations to states, which ultimately decide for themselves.
The European Medicines Agency said on Tuesday it would hold an extraordinary meeting on December 29 "at the latest" to consider emergency approval for the vaccine developed by Germany's BioNTech and US giant Pfizer.
Another meeting to assess the request from Moderna will take place no later than January 12.
Large-scale trial data released last month showed that both vaccines were safe and around 95 percent effective against COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
European Commission spokesman Stefan de Keersmaecker told reporters that once the EMA gave regulatory permission, formal authorization from Brussels would follow "very quickly" — probably "in a matter of days."
The Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines are based on the same new technology — mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid), which is used to deliver genetic material to the body and make human cells create a protein from the virus.
This trains the immune system to be ready to attack if it encounters SARS-CoV-2.
Stock markets rallied on Tuesday on the good vaccine news, though the surging number of new infections kept traders in check.
Europe lines up timetables
The announcement by the EMA gave European countries a much clearer timeframe for the start of their vaccination campaigns.
France plans to prioritize the most fragile and exposed groups in early 2021, followed by a second round for the rest of the population between April and June, President Emmanuel Macron announced.
Germany has already said it is hoping to launch its immunization drive in the first quarter of 2021 and is preparing vaccination centers across the country.
Spain announced on Tuesday it would buy more than 50 million additional vaccine doses from three different labs, including Moderna, bringing the total number it will acquire to 105 million.
The country also inaugurated a huge new medical complex, built in just three months at a cost of nearly 100 million euros (US$120 million) to ease pressure on Madrid area hospitals.
Ireland meanwhile ended its second partial coronavirus lockdown on Tuesday, after six weeks of tough restrictions.
As cases are expected to mount as people mingle in the run-up to Christmas, "the challenge is to keep that increase as low as possible," Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told broadcaster RTE.
'Help is on the way'
The OECD club of wealthy countries predicted Tuesday that with vaccines perhaps only weeks away from distribution, the world economy would bounce back to pre-pandemic levels by late 2021.
With anticipated global growth of around 4.2 percent next year, the world should make up almost all the output shortfall suffered in 2020, largely thanks to "massive policy support" from governments and central banks, OECD chief economist Laurence Boone said.
But while China and India are expected to leap ahead, the United States, the eurozone and Japan are forecast to see only modest gains.
US President-elect Joe Biden on Tuesday unveiled his new proposed economic team and said it would lead the charge on a plan to provide more relief for the faltering economy.
"I know times are tough, but I want you to know that help is on the way," he said.
The United Nations warned that the pandemic would pitch tens of millions more people into desperate need next year, and said around US$35 billion in humanitarian aid was needed.
"The increase arises almost entirely because of COVID-19," UN emergency relief coordinator Mark Lowcock told reporters.
In Britain, lawmakers voted through new tough COVID restrictions, creating a three-tiered system to replace an England-wide lockdown despite a significant rebellion by members of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's own party.