Increasing Vaccine Options and Availability, yet Restrictions Generally Remain in Place: Global Weekly Highlights

Medscape, Univadis, & MediQuality Staff

March 04, 2021

Belgium has decided that AstraZeneca's vaccine can be administered to everyone over the age of 18, including over 55s, according to the latest advice of the Superior Health Council. Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said that this is "crucial" for an adjustment of the strategy. Less than 5% of the Belgian population has received a first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine so far.

In France, a further tightening of COVID-19 lockdown measures is expected. A weekend lockdown in Ile-de-France is being considered. Regarding vaccination, over 3 million doses have been administered. Vaccination efforts should also accelerate in the coming weeks, as the AstraZeneca vaccine can now be administered to people aged 65 and over with co-morbidities. Also, the French Healthcare Authority has added four co-morbidities with a high risk of death to the list of priorities for vaccination: chronic hepatic diseases and in particular cirrhosis; dementia; people with a history of stroke; and psychiatric disorders.

Germany is considering draft measures to ease lockdowns, which are currently expected to extend until March 28 at least. The German Cancer Society has also announced that despite cancer patients being entitled to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, regardless of age, access to vaccines is far from uniform.

In the UK, the number of COVID-19 deaths continues to fall, and the number of vaccinated people continues to rise. More than 20 million individuals have now received a first dose of either the AstraZeneca/Oxford or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. A preprint study showed that both vaccines were highly effective in reducing COVID-19 among older people. Both vaccines were approximately 80% effective at preventing hospital admission in those aged 80 and over around 3 to 4 weeks after a single dose, the study suggested.

Meanwhile, the hunt is on in the UK to trace one of the first people there believed to have contracted a "variant of concern (VOC)" of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the P.1 variant first identified in Manaus, Brazil. Six cases have been identified, with five of these people have been traced. The remaining infected individual failed to fill in their paperwork properly when returning a home COVID-19 test after flying into London Heathrow from Sao Paulo via Zurich.

In Italy, a document from the National Institute of Health shows that the "variants of concern" are spreading there. An estimation based on tests collected on February 18 shows a prevalence of 54% for the VOC 20212/01 from Britain; 4.3% for P1 from Brazil and 0.4% for B.1.351 from South Africa. The P1 variant represents almost 20% of the cases in central Italy, which has again been classified as a red zone since Monday. Italy has vaccinated almost 5 million people with at least one dose but is facing a shortage of mRNA vaccines that is slowing down the vaccination campaign for the most at-risk groups.

More than 70,000 people have died due to COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic in Spain. The incidence of new cases is decreasing, with 159 cases per 100,000 habitants. Nevertheless, the government intends to keep restriction measures in place for the Holy Week at Easter. The Inter-territorial Health Council there has decided to keep the age limit to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine at 55 years. Over 96% of people in elderly residences have already received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 85% have received both. The prevalence of the British variant is not homogeneous in Spain; in some communities it accounts for less than 10%, and in others, such as the Balearic Islands, it accounts for 65% of news cases of COVID-19 this past week, a concerning increase.

In Portugal, doctors who contested anti-COVID-19 measures decided to end their activities. The group, composed of 15 doctors from different specialties, argued against measures adopted in several countries, such as the widespread use of masks and the need to isolate asymptomatic people. The group also questioned the reliability of the PCR test to identify the coronavirus infection.

The number of patients in intensive care has maintained a downward trend for 19 days, and the number of hospitalized patients is also falling. About 3% of the Portuguese population is already vaccinated. One-third of older adults over 80 have already received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the weekly vaccination report from the Directorate-General for Health, released on Tuesday.

According to a large study, the vaccination campaign in Israel led to a 72% drop in COVID-19-related deaths after injecting the first dose of the vaccine. The country is, however, facing a new resurgence of the epidemic that could slow down measures to ease lockdowns planned for this weekend.

Nigeria, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo have received their first doses of vaccines against COVID-19, funded by the COVAX initiative created by the World Health Organization for the benefit of the world's most vulnerable countries.

In Brazil, hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 have skyrocketed, and the health system is approaching collapse in at least 19 of the 27 federal regions, with intensive care unit bed occupancy above 80%. In the worst day of the pandemic since its beginning, the country registered 1,726 deaths on Tuesday, as the central government remains opposed to any lockdown. The daily average number of deaths has remained above a thousand for more than 40 days. According to the media consortium that monitors the pandemic numbers in partnership with 27 state health departments, the total number of deaths is 257,562, with 10,647,845 cases.

States have started to buy vaccines directly from manufacturers, as the central government is failing to fulfil its role of providing vaccines. As of Tuesday, 7,106,147 Brazilians had received a first dose of vaccine, representing 3.36% of the population. New studies reveal the characteristics of the P.1 variant, which is spreading throughout the country, and the emergence of this new variant illustrates the failure of any concrete measures to prevent transmission.

On March 1, Colombia became the first country in the Americas to get the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine as part of the COVAX Facility. Meanwhile, the Director of the Pan American Health Organization, Carissa F. Etienne, stressed the importance of vaccines and how they "should not be a privilege for the few, but a right for all."

After vaccinating healthcare staff and other frontline workers, India has widened its COVID-19 vaccination campaign to include individuals aged 60 and above and those aged 45 and above with certain co-morbidities. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was administered the home-grown vaccine Covaxin on March 1, which is expected to boost public confidence in the vaccination program.

South Korea began its COVID-19 vaccination drive on February 26 by immunizing staff and residents at nursing homes using the AstraZeneca vaccine. The country plans to vaccinate 70% of its 52 million population by November 2021.

Hong Kong also kicked off its vaccination program on February 26 by administering China's Sinovac vaccine to healthcare workers and individuals aged 60 and above.

Japan has asked China to avoid using anal swabs for COVID-19 testing on Japanese citizens, saying it could cause potential "psychological distress."

Auckland, New Zealand went back into a 7-day lockdown on February 28 after a COVID-19 community case with unknown origin was identified. Auckland has earlier implemented a 3-day lockdown on February 14.

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