Poorer nations reject over 100m virus jabs as many close to expiry

A woman receives a coronavirus vaccine in Abuja, Nigeria, on Nov 29, 2021. Nigeria recently launched a mass rollout of COVID-19 vaccines as it aims to protect its population of more than 200 million amid an infection surge in a third wave of the pandemic. (GBEMIGA OLAMIKAN / AP)

SOFIA / DUBLIN / ZAGREB / LONDON / COPENHAGEN / BERLIN / PARIS / BRAZZAVILLE / BRUSSELS – Poorer nations last month rejected more than 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines distributed by the global program COVAX, mainly due to their rapid expiry date, a UNICEF official said on Thursday.

The big figure shows the difficulties of vaccinating the world despite growing supplies of shots, with COVAX getting closer to delivering 1 billion doses to a total of nearly 150 countries.

"More than a 100 million have been rejected just in December alone," Etleva Kadilli, director of Supply Division at UN agency UNICEF told lawmakers at the European Parliament.

In January, 67 percent of the population in richer nations had been fully vaccinated, whereas only 8 percent in poorer nations have received their first dose, World Health Organization figures show

The main reason for rejection was the delivery of doses with a short shelf-life, she said.

Poorer nations have also been forced to delay supplies because they have insufficient storage facilities, Kadilli said, including a lack of fridges for vaccines.

ALSO READ: In a first, COVAX to send shots only to least covered nations

Many countries also face high levels of vaccine hesitancy and have overburdened healthcare systems.

UNICEF did not immediately reply to a query about how many doses have been rejected so far in total.

Many others are stored waiting to be used in poorer nations.

UNICEF's data on supplies and use of delivered vaccines show that 681 million shipped doses are currently stored in about 90 poorer nations, according to CARE, a charity, which extracted the figures from a public database.

More than 30 poorer nations have used fewer than half of the doses they received, CARE said.

A spokesperson for Gavi, a vaccine alliance which co-manages COVAX, said that the high storage level was due to a surge in deliveries in the last quarter, especially in December.

Gavi added that most vaccines recently shipped by COVAX had a long shelf life, and therefore were unlikely to go wasted.

COVAX, which is co-led by the World Health Organization, has so far delivered 987 million COVID-19 vaccines to 144 countries, according to data from Gavi.

COVAX is the main supplier of doses to dozens of poorer nations, but is not the only one. Some countries buy doses on their own or use other regional vaccine procurement programs.

Supplies to poorer nations have long been very limited because of lack of vaccines, as wealthier states secured most of the doses initially available from December 2020.

But in the last quarter, shipments have exponentially increased thanks to donations from rich countries that have vaccinated the majority of their populations.

In January, 67 percent of the population in richer nations had been fully vaccinated, whereas only 8 percent in poorer nations have received their first dose, WHO figures show.

Increased supply caught many receiving countries unprepared.

"We have countries that are pushing doses that are currently available towards quarter two of 2022," Kadilli said.

Of the 15 million doses from the EU that have been refused, three-quarters were AstraZeneca shots with a shelf life of less than 10 weeks upon arrival, according to a UNICEF slide.

Wealthy countries donating vaccines with a relatively short shelf life has been a "major problem" for COVAX, a WHO senior official said last month. read more

"You want to have adequate time to move vaccines from depots," Kenya's health ministry spokesperson Mburugu Gikunda said, noting doses close to expiry would go wasted if accepted.

Reuters reported in December that up to one million vaccines were estimated to have expired in Nigeria in November without being used.

Africa

After a six-week surge, Africa's fourth wave of COVID-19 pandemic driven primarily by the Omicron variant, is flattening, marking the shortest-lived surge to date in the continent where cumulative cases have now exceeded 10 million, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Thursday.

Weekly cases having plateaued in the week ending on January 9, according to a statement of WHO's regional office for Africa.

The WHO said that Southern Africa, which saw a huge increase in infections during the pandemic wave, recorded a 14 percent decline in infections over the past week, with South Africa, where Omicron was first reported, recording a 9 percent fall in weekly infections

The WHO said that Southern Africa, which saw a huge increase in infections during the pandemic wave, recorded a 14 percent decline in infections over the past week, with South Africa, where Omicron was first reported, recording a 9 percent fall in weekly infections.

North and West Africa, however, are witnessing a rise in cases, with North Africa reporting a 121 percent increase this past week compared with the previous one, warned the WHO.

Across the continent, though, deaths rose by 64 percent in the seven days ending on January 9 compared with the week before mainly due to infections among people at high-risk. Nonetheless, deaths in the fourth wave on the African continent are lower than in the previous waves.

ALSO READ: COVID-19: South Africa to roll out boosters immediately

So far, 30 African countries have detected the Omicron variant, while the Delta variant has been reported in 42 African countries.

"Early indications suggest that Africa's fourth wave has been steep and brief but no less destabilizing. The crucial pandemic countermeasure badly needed in Africa still stands, and that is rapidly and significantly increasing COVID-19 vaccinations. The next wave might not be so forgiving," said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO's regional director for Africa.

While the continent appears to be weathering the latest pandemic wave, vaccinations still remain low. Just around 10 percent of Africa's population has been fully vaccinated, noted WHO.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa reached 10,159,243 cases as of Wednesday evening, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A wounded police officer is assisted by his colleagues during clashing with 2,000 protesters, who don't wear masks or adhere to social distancing, as they push against police cordons, trying to enter Bulgaria's parliament building during a demonstration organised by the nationalist Vazrazhdane political party, which is pushing for the abolition of the COVID-19 health pass in Sofia on Jan 12, 2022. (NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV / AFP)

Bulgaria

Anti-vaccine protesters tried to storm the Bulgarian parliament on Wednesday and briefly scuffled with police officers during a massive rally against coronavirus restrictions in downtown Sofia.

Tensions rose an hour after about 3,000 people gathered in front of the parliament building, demanding the lifting of a mandatory health pass which they said trampled on their rights and was a back-door means of forcing people to get vaccinated.

Protesters, many of whom arrived on buses for the rally, pushed back a police cordon around parliament and reached the front doors of the building.

They stopped short of breaking in and called on lawmakers to come out and address their demands. Several people, including police officers, were injured during the brief clashes.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a news conference on the COVID-19 situation in Ottawa, Canada on Jan 12, 2022. (DAVE CHAN / AFP)

Canada

Canada will allow unvaccinated Canadian truckers to cross in from the United States, reversing a decision requiring all truckers to be inoculated against the coronavirus, Canada's border agency said on Wednesday.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had faced pressure from the main opposition party and trucking lobby to drop the vaccine mandate for truckers, due to come into force on Saturday, saying it could result in driver shortages, disrupt trade and drive up inflation.

The Canada Border Services Agency said that unvaccinated, or partially vaccinated Canadian truck drivers arriving at the US-Canada border will remain exempt from pre-arrival, arrival and post-arrival testing and quarantine requirements.

However, truckers from the United States will still need to be vaccinated or they will be turned back at the border from Jan 15, a CBSA spokesperson said.

A Canadian government source said the decision was taken to ensure smooth supply chains.

Trudeau's Liberal government had set the Saturday deadline requiring all truckers entering from the United States to show proof of vaccination as part of its fight against COVID-19.

With more than two-thirds of the C$650 billion ($511 billion) in goods traded annually between Canada and the United States travelling on roads, the trucking industry is key.

The Canadian Trucking Alliance had estimated the government mandate could force some 16,000 cross-border drivers – 10 percent of them – off the roads.

Croatia

Croatia on Wednesday logged a record number of 9,894 new COVID-19 cases, and 27 related deaths, the country's COVID-19 crisis management team said.

This is the highest number of new infections in Croatia in a single day since the pandemic began, with the previous record registered on Jan. 6 when there were 9,058 new infections.

Denmark

Denmark will offer a fourth coronavirus vaccination to the most vulnerable citizens as it faces record infections from the Omicron variant, the country's health minister said on Wednesday.

The move comes as lawmakers agreed to ease restrictions at the end of the week, including reopening cinemas and music venues, as hospitalisation rates and deaths have stabilised despite the surge in cases.

France

The French Senate approved on Thursday the government's latest measures to tackle the COVID-19, including a vaccine pass, which has encountered some opposition among the public after President Emmanuel Macron's harsh criticism of the unvaccinated.

The Senate backed the COVID-19 measures and legislation for a COVID-19 vaccine pass by 249 in favor, versus 63 against. The legislation had already been approved earlier this month by France's lower house of parliament.

On Wednesday, France registered 361,719 new COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours, and a further 246 COVID-19 deaths in hospitals

Macron and members of his ruling La Republique En Marche party have stepped up their campaign this year against those not vaccinated against COVID-19, as France battles a fifth wave of the virus.

Macron told Le Parisien paper this month that he wanted to "piss off" unvaccinated people by making their lives so complicated they would end up getting the COVID-19 vaccine. 

On Wednesday, France registered 361,719 new COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours, and a further 246 COVID-19 deaths in hospitals.

French teachers will also walk off the job en masse on Thursday over what they say is a government failure to adopt a coherent policy for schools to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, or properly protect pupils and staff against infection.

Meanwhile, France announced on Thursday that it was slightly easing COVID-19 protocols for travelers from Britain, saying that the proof of an essential reason for the trip and a requirement to self-isolate upon arrival would no longer be required.

The requirement for a negative COVID-19 test, conducted 24 hours before a trip, remains in place.


In this file photo taken on Dec 21, 2021,
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz looks on as he addresses a press conference following consultations with the premiers of the German federal states on measures to curb the COVID-19 pandemic at the Chancellery in Berlin. (BERND VON JUTRCZENKA / POOL / AFP)

Germany

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz reiterated his support for mandatory COVID-19 vaccination in the country during his first briefing to the Bundestag (lower house of Parliament) on Wednesday.

Scholz said he hoped for a swift discussion in the Bundestag on a general COVID-19 vaccination obligation, stressing that "I, for one, believe it is necessary and will actively campaign for it."

Not getting vaccinated is not just a personal decision but has consequences for the entire country, he said. "There is no decision that you make just for yourself, and that is why mandatory vaccination is right."

The German government has already made it mandatory for healthcare workers to get vaccinated. The vaccination rate in the country stood at 72.2 percent on Tuesday, according to official figures. However, around 21 million people in Germany are still not vaccinated.

Alongside the COVID-19 vaccination campaign, the country's booster vaccination program would also need to be pushed ahead, Scholz said. The goal is to administer more than one million vaccines per day, just as the country did before the Christmas holidays.

Scholz also warned that COVID-19 case numbers would increase sharply due to the more contagious Omicron variant.

On Wednesday, Germany's Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases reported a new record of more than 80,000 daily COVID-19 cases.

In this file photo taken on March 25, 2021,
a health worker administers a swab test for COVID-19 at a walk-in portable testing centre operated by the ambulance service in Dublin, Ireland. (PAUL FAITH / AFP)

Ireland

The Irish government on Wednesday announced a number of changes to its existing rules regarding the isolation and testing for COVID-19 cases and close contacts.

Under the new rules, the self-isolation period for a person who has COVID-19 will be shortened to seven days from the past 10 days.

Close contacts of a confirmed case, who have received their booster vaccine, will no longer need to self-isolate for five days if they have no symptoms, but they are advised to wear a medical or high-grade mask and to take regular antigen tests.

Close contacts who have not been inoculated with booster vaccine will have to self-isolate for seven days.

People aged from four to 39, who have tested positive on an antigen test, will no longer have to confirm the result with a PCR test.

The new rules will come into effect from Friday, said the government in a statement.

Moderna

Moderna Inc said on Wednesday it expects to report data from its COVID-19 vaccine trial in children aged between 2 to 5 years in March.

"If the data is supportive and subject to regulatory consultation, Moderna may proceed with regulatory filings for children 2-5 years of age thereafter," the company said.

Moderna's vaccine, based on the messenger RNA platform, already has authorizations in Europe, UK, Australia, and Canada for adolescents aged 12-17 years, and has submitted applications for children in 6 to 11 years.

In the United States, the vaccine is authorized by Food and Drug Administration as primary two-dose regimen and booster dose for adults 18 years and older. The company, however, is yet to get an authorization from the regulator for use of its vaccine in children.

The logo of US multinational pharmaceutical company Pfizer, is pictured
on Dec 3, 2020  at a factory in Puurs, where COVID-19 vaccines are being produced for Britain. (KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

Pfizer

Pfizer Inc said on Wednesday booster doses of its COVID-19 vaccine can be administered along with its pneumonia vaccine and produced strong safety and immune responses in people aged 65 and above in a late-stage study.

The study, initiated in May, tested the company's next-generation pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, PREVNAR 20, with a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 shot in 570 participants

The study, initiated in May, tested the company's next-generation pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, PREVNAR 20, with a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 shot in 570 participants.

The aim of the study was to test the safety of the combination and the immune response after adding the pneumonia vaccine to the existing COVID-19 vaccine.

The company said responses elicited by PREVNAR 20 and booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine were similar when given together or with placebo.

The data provides evidence supporting the potential to administer PREVNAR 20 and the company's COVID-19 vaccine at the same time, reducing the number of visits people make to doctors or pharmacies for recommended immunization, Pfizer said.

PREVNAR 20 was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in June last year to help protect adults against most invasive pneumococcal diseases and pneumonia.

Study participants were recruited from the companies' late-stage COVID-19 vaccine study, and those who had received the second dose of the company's COVID-19 vaccine at least six months before entering the co-administration study.

Switzerland

Swiss drugs regulator Swissmedic said on Thursday it had granted temporary approval to Regkirona, antibody medicine that can be used for the treatment of COVID-19 in adults.

Swissmedic said the applicant did not submit any information on its efficacy against the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Regkirona, which contains the active substance regdanvimab, can be used to treat adult COVID-19 patients if oxygen therapy or hospitalization is not required, and there is a high risk of developing a severe form of COVID-19.

In this file photo taken on Aug 02, 2021, a traveller walks past a sign directing the public to a COVID-19 testing centre at Terminal 5 in west London as quarantine restrictions ease. (TOLGA AKMEN / AFP)

UK

An estimated 4.3 million people in private households in Britain had COVID-19 last week, up from 3.7 million in the previous week and set a new record, the British Office for National Statistics said Wednesday.

Prevalence of the coronavirus continues to be highest in England, where around one in 15 people are estimated to have had the virus in the week to Jan 6, according to ONS figures.

In Wales, around one in 20 is estimated to have infected with the disease last week, or 169,100 people, up from 157,900. For Scotland the latest estimate is one in 20, or 297,400 people, up from 238,000. In Northern Ireland, the estimate is 99,200 people, up from 72,900, in a week.

"COVID-19 infections continued to increase across all regions of England except the East of England, and London," said ONS.

Britain reported 129,587 COVID-19 cases in the latest 24-hour period, bringing the total number in the country to 14,862,138, according to official figures on Wednesday.

The country also reported a further 398 coronavirus-related deaths, taking the tally to 151,007.

People wait in line for a free COVID-19 test in Los Angeles, California on Dec 21, 2021.
(FREDERIC J BROWN / AFP)

US

Long lines snake around entire city blocks as Americans scramble to get tested for COVID-19. At-home testing kits fly off the shelves at pharmacies and drug stores. Demand that surged before the holidays has yet to subside in the new year.

As the Omicron variant pushed infections to record levels and the Biden administration unveiled plans to double testing capacity in schools, people across the country voiced frustration on Wednesday with the paucity of tests.

Testing shortages and delays are having a ripple effect on the lives of many Americans, including students and teachers whose ability to be in the classroom hinges on testing availability.

US President Joe Biden's administration on Wednesday announced new measures to keep classes open, including doubling testing capacity in schools with 10 million more tests.

The new steps come as some school districts move to virtual classes again to escape the Omicron wave. The politics over how to keep schools open is also expected to be a significant issue in the upcoming midterm elections and has already been a subject of intense debate, with Republicans saying the administration has not done enough on the issue.

The announcement is part of Biden's bid to make testing more widely available and follows an announcement in December that 500 million rapid tests would be available free to all Americans in January.

Critics have accused Biden of not focusing enough on testing in the fight to control surging Omicron cases and hospitalizations, amid growing reports of acute shortages of test kits around the country.

The United States leads the world in the daily average number of new infections reported, accounting for one in every three infections reported worldwide, according to a Reuters tally.

On Monday, the country shattered global records when it reported 1.35 million cases in a single day, according to a Reuters tally.

Besides, due in part to increased demand, some labs have said that tests are taking longer to process.

Staffing has been an issue at some labs.

"Laboratory scientists are getting sick, like everyone else," said Scott Becker, chief executive of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, representing 150 state and local public health laboratories.

WHO

World Health Organization Emergency Director Mike Ryan on Wednesday refuted statements made by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus would be welcome and that it could even bring about the end of the pandemic.

In an interview earlier, Bolsonaro played down the advance of the new variant in Brazil.

During a news conference in Geneva, when asked about the statements made by the Brazilian president, Ryan affirmed that while Omicron is "less severe as a viral infection in an individual, that doesn't mean it's a mild disease."

There are many people around the world in hospitals, in ICUs, gasping for breath, which "obviously makes very clear that this is not a mild disease," he added.