The European Union on Friday abruptly reversed a plan to use emergency Brexit measures to restrict exports of COVID-19 vaccines from crossing the Irish border into the United Kingdom after it sent shockwaves through Northern Ireland, London and Dublin.
In a steep escalation of the EU’s fight to secure vaccine supplies, Brussels had said it would trigger clauses in the Northern Irish Protocol to prevent the vaccines from moving across the open border between EU-member Ireland and the British-run province.
Following outcry in London, Belfast and Dublin, the EU published a statement just before midnight local time saying it would ensure that the Northern Ireland Protocol, designed to keep the border open, would not be affected.
It warned, however, that should vaccines and active substances move toward third countries and out of the bloc, it would use “all the instruments at its disposal.”
The EU’s original plan was intended to prevent the open border between EU-member Ireland and Northern Ireland from acting as a backdoor for vaccine supplies into the United Kingdom.
The public reversal followed a round of frantic calls as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of his “grave concerns” while Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin spoke to both Johnson and the EU chief to find a solution.
Northern Irish unionists cast the EU’s original plan as an act of hostility.
In a tweet late on Friday, von der Leyen said she had spoken to Johnson: “We agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities.”
Earlier, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and other WHO officials warned of supply-chain disruptions that could result and ripple through the world — potentially stalling the fight against the pandemic.
Speaking at a World Economic Forum event alongside Tedros and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, German Health Minister Jens Spahn said: “It’s important for us that Europe is safe, that the world is safe.”
“But if we want to have acceptance for this, of course we also need to vaccinate … our own people. So it’s about the right balance.”
Bourla said seeking an actual ban on exports — and he emphasized that wasn’t what the EU was doing — “could become a lose-lose situation rather than a win for Europe situation.”
Tedros acknowledged pressures faced by national politicians but said hoarding vaccine could lead to a “catastrophic moral failure,” a simmering pandemic and a slow economic recovery around the world.
“For now, what WHO is saying is if countries can vaccinate their health workers, and elderly, and people with underlying health conditions, it’s enough,” he told an earlier WHO news conference.
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The swiftest mass vaccination drive in history is stoking tensions across the world as big powers buy up doses in bulk and poorer nations try to navigate a financial and diplomatic minefield to collect whatever supplies are left.
The EU, whose member states are far behind Israel, Britain and the United States in rolling out vaccines, is scrambling to get supplies just as the West’s biggest drugmakers slow deliveries to the bloc because of production problems.
What’s happening in Canada
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As of 6:15 p.m. ET on Friday, Canada had reported 770,793 cases of COVID-19, with 55,313 cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 19,801.
Ontario reported 1,837 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and 58 additional deaths. Hospitalizations stood at 1,291, a provincial dashboard said, with 360 patients listed as being in Ontario’s intensive care units.
Meanwhile, Premier Doug Ford announced mandatory COVID-19 testing for all international travellers arriving at Toronto Pearson International Airport, effective Monday at 12:01 p.m.
This comes a day after the province’s health advisers warned that a highly contagious variant of COVID-19 first identified in the U.K. could become the dominant strain of the virus in the province by March.
On Friday, public health officials in Waterloo region said a woman in her 30s is the region’s first case of this variant.
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In Quebec, health officials reported 1,295 new cases on Friday and 50 more deaths, nine of which occurred in the last 24 hours.
Premier François Legault said on Thursday that while the situation is improving in the hard-hit province, the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations is “too high.” According to Friday’s provincial data, there are 1,217 people in hospital, including 209 in intensive care.
The province had previously suggested it hoped to lift some restrictions by Feb. 8, but the premier on Thursday suggested that was unlikely. “We have to be realistic — most of the measures will continue,” Legault said.
Manitoba reported 157 new cases and three new deaths on Friday, with more than half of the new cases in the province’s Northern Health Region.
A new public health order took effect in the province at 12:01 a.m. Friday, requiring most people travelling to Manitoba for non-essential reasons to self-isolate for two weeks.
Saskatchewan reported 328 new cases and seven more deaths on Friday. The provincial government also announced it was extending its temporary relief program for small businesses affected by pandemic restrictions through January.
Alberta reported 543 new cases and 14 new deaths on Friday, as Premier Jason Kenney said the province will begin easing restrictions on Feb. 8, with restaurants and gyms being the first businesses to benefit.
Kenney said hospitalizations will be the key metric for easing restrictions further, supplemented by daily numbers and case growth.
British Columbia reported 514 new cases and five new deaths on Friday. Health officials also said all residents of long-term care facilities have now been offered a COVID-19 vaccine.
In Atlantic Canada, New Brunswick reported 16 new cases and one additional death on Friday, as the chief medical officer of health warned of an impending third wave of the pandemic that will be “much worse” than the first or second because of new variants.
Dr. Jennifer Russell said that because of the variant threat, no region will move past the orange level of restrictions for “many weeks.”
Newfoundland and Labrador reported four new cases, while Nova Scotia reported one new case. P.E.I. did not provide an update.
In the North, the three territories all reported no new cases on Friday.
Here’s a look at what’s happening across the country:
What’s happening around the world
As of Friday evening, more than 101.9 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, with 56.3 million of those considered recovered or resolved, according to a tracking tool maintained by Johns Hopkins University. The global death toll stood at just over 2.2 million.
Europe’s medicines regulator on Friday recommended approving AstraZeneca and Oxford University’s COVID-19 vaccine for people over the age of 18.
Europe urgently needs more shots to speed up its inoculation program with suppliers such as AstraZeneca and Pfizer facing difficulties in delivering the quantities promised for the early months of the year.
The shot is the third COVID-19 vaccine given the green light by the European Medicines Agency, after ones made by Pfizer and Moderna. Both were authorized for all adults. The decision required final approval from the European Commission, which was granted later Friday.
“There are not yet enough results in older participants (over 55 years old) to provide a figure for how well the vaccine will work in this group,” the regulator said, but noted that “protection is expected, given that an immune response is seen in this age group and based on experience with other vaccines.
“EMA’s scientific experts considered that the vaccine can be used in older adults.”
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Denmark will extend its current coronavirus restrictions by three weeks in order to curb the spread of a more contagious coronavirus variant first registered in Britain.
Portugal, which is facing serious strain on its health-care system, extended a nationwide lockdown until mid-February and announced curbs on international travel.
In the Asia-Pacific region, Vietnam reported 34 new COVID-19 infections early on Saturday in its latest coronavirus outbreak, which began on Thursday and has spread to five northern cities and provinces, including Hanoi.
Of the new cases, 32 were detected in Hai Duong province, the epicentre, and two in neighbouring Quang Ninh province, the Ministry of Health said in a statement.
Health Minister Nguyen Thanh Long told reporters on the sidelines of the Communist Party congress, which is being held in Hanoi, that 3,674 tests had been conducted. Testing capacity was 50,000 a day, and the outbreak was under control in areas where the most cases had been found, Long said.
Sri Lanka on Friday began inoculating front-line health workers, military troops and police officers against COVID-19 amid warnings that the medical sector faces a collapse because of health personnel being infected with the coronavirus.
Sri Lanka on Thursday received 500,000 vaccine doses as a donation from neighbouring India. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, also known as the Covishield, is manufactured by the Serum Institute of India.
In the Americas, Dr. Anthony Fauci said he hopes to see children being vaccinated in the U.S. starting in the next few months. “Hopefully by the time we get to the late spring and early summer we will have children being able to be vaccinated,” the government’s top infectious disease expert said during a White House coronavirus briefing on Friday.
Vaccines are not yet approved for children, and Fauci was looking ahead to a time they will be plentiful. Even older adults are having difficulty getting shots at the moment. As of Thursday, only about 1.3 per cent of Americans had been fully vaccinated with the required two doses of the currently available vaccines.
Mexico’s death toll from COVID-19 surpassed India to be the third highest in the world. The country has seen more than 1.8 million cases and more than 155,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins.
Power outages in Rio de Janeiro may have spoiled hundreds of doses of COVID-19 vaccines, city health officials told Reuters on Friday, in a fresh setback for Brazil’s hamstrung immunization efforts.
Up to 720 doses of the CoronaVac vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech may need to be thrown out after a power outage at the federal hospital in the city’s Bonsucesso neighbourhood left them stored at an inappropriate temperature.
In the Middle East, Turkey says it has detected the possibly more infectious coronavirus variant first found in southeast England. Health Minister Fahrettin Koca says on Twitter that 128 people have been diagnosed with the new coronavirus variant in 17 cities across the country.
Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister and its president on Friday condemned overnight violence in the city of Tripoli, where protesters angry over a strict lockdown clashed with security forces and set the municipality building on fire.
Thursday was the fourth straight night of unrest in one of Lebanon’s poorest cities, after the Beirut government imposed a 24-hour curfew to curb a surge in the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 2,500 people and compounded an economic crisis.
In Africa, the African Union secured another 400 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine in a push to immunize 60 per cent of the continent’s population over a three-year period.
Meanwhile, Algeria received its first coronavirus vaccines Friday, a shipment of Russia’s Sputnik V, according to the health minister. Minister Amar Belhimeur didn’t indicate how many arrived, although the government has said it had ordered a first batch of 500,000 doses.