Coronavirus live updates: Variant found in South Africa prompts new travel curbs; E.U. demands answers on vaccine delays

Here are the latest developments:

The moves to tighten borders came as the European Union stepped up efforts to secure vaccine supplies amid a growing shortage, threatening drugmakers the E.U. says have hampered a major rollout with production and other logistical delays.

The bloc’s executive branch Friday published its contract with British-Swedish pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, following a heated dispute over the company’s announcement last week that it would deliver “considerably fewer” doses to E.U. member nations than agreed upon.

The European Commission had reserved hundreds of millions of doses from major pharmaceutical firms, including AstraZeneca but also Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. The E.U. health commissioner Friday was expected to announce curbs to vaccine exports from the 27-member bloc to outside countries, including a requirement that drugmakers seek prior authorization.

The decision drew criticism from industry bodies such as the International Chamber of Commerce. In a letter to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen this week, the Paris-based chamber said such a move would have a “devastating” impact on global vaccine supplies.

“Our immediate fear is that the proposed E.U. export controls risk triggering retaliatory actions by third countries that could very rapidly erode essential supply chains,” ICC Secretary General John Denton wrote in the letter, the Financial Times reported.

“Such a chain of events — which seems entirely foreseeable given the rapid escalation in trade barriers on personal protective equipment at the outset of the pandemic — would have devastating implications on the supply of vaccines globally, including across E.U. member states,” he said.

In its first vaccine safety update Friday, the E.U.’s medical regulatory agency said that no new side effects were identified in those immunized with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The European Medicines Agency also said that data did not show a link between the shot and a number of deaths that were reported post-vaccination.

Its safety committee “carried out an analysis of the cases and took into account the presence of other medical conditions and the death rate for corresponding age groups in the general population,” the EMA said in a statement. The committee “concluded that the data did not show a link to vaccination … and the cases do not raise a safety concern.”

In the United States, Maryland biotech company Novavax announced Thursday that its vaccine candidate proved effective against covid-19 infections, including in hot spots suffering outbreaks of the new variants. In a trial in Britain, where a more contagious strain is dominant, the vaccine was 89 percent effective, the company said.

More worrying, however, were the results from Novavax’s South African trial, where most participants were infected with the B. 1351 variant. The vaccine’s efficacy in those cases dropped to between 49 and 60 percent, depending on whether the participant was also infected with HIV.

Britain and Germany were rolling out new travel restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of both the B. 1351 variant, as well as a separate strain first identified in Brazil. On Friday, the British government banned direct passenger flights from the United Arab Emirates, where a surge in new infections has been blamed on a flood of international travel to and from Dubai.

Scientists and drug companies say the variant first identified in South Africa has evaded key antibody treatments and vaccines, potentially blunting efforts to tame the pandemic.

Germany on Friday was also expected to enact a ban on travel from Brazil, Britain, Portugal and South Africa. Two separate variants of the virus were also first identified in Brazil and Britain.

Britain’s Foreign Office and Department for Transport also banned travel from Burundi and Rwanda, both of which have reported cases involving the South African variant.

“The decision to ban travel from these destinations follows the discovery of a new coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa, that may have spread to other countries, including the UAE, Burundi and Rwanda,” they said in a joint statement.

The B. 1351 variant has now infected people in at least seven African countries, including Botswana, Ghana and Kenya, the WHO’s regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti said.

The virus continued to take an increasingly grim toll. In Mexico, the number of coronavirus deaths has surpassed those in India, according to Health Ministry figures. With more than 155,000 deaths, the country now has the third-highest number of fatalities worldwide.

More than 100 million people have been infected by the coronavirus since the pathogen emerged in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.

Scientists investigating the origins of the outbreak and led by the World Health Organization began their first face-to-face meetings with Chinese counterparts in Wuhan on Friday. The 10-member team visited a hospital that was one of the first to treat covid-19 patients.

The politically charged mission followed months of negotiations between the WHO and Chinese authorities, whom some experts have accused of suppressing information about the true extent of the outbreak.

“Extremely important 1st site visit. We are in the hospital that treated some of the first known cases of COVID-19, meeting with the actual clinicians & staff who did this work, having open discussion about the details of their work,” team member Peter Daszak said on Twitter Friday.

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