Austrian lawmakers pass COVID-19 vaccine mandate

In this file photo taken on Dec 27, 2020 a woman is given a dose of the Pfizer-Biontech COVID-19 vaccine at the Medical University of Vienna, Austria. (HANS PUNZ / POOL / AFP)

BRUSSELS / BRASILIA / PARIS / ZEGREB / WASHINGTON / CAPE TOWN / BERLIN / VIENNA – Austria's lower house of parliament passed a bill on Thursday making COVID-19 vaccinations compulsory for adults as of Feb 1, bringing Austria closer to introducing the first such sweeping coronavirus vaccine mandate in the European Union.

The bill must now pass the upper house and be signed by President Alexander Van der Bellen, steps which will be largely formalities

Faced with a stubbornly high number of vaccine holdouts and a surge in infections, the government said in November it was planning the mandate. Since then it has raised the age as of which the mandate will apply, to 18 from 14.

The bill must now pass the upper house and be signed by President Alexander Van der Bellen, steps which will be largely formalities.

Roughly 72 percent of Austria's population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in western Europe. After a fourth national lockdown ended last month, the extremely contagious Omicron variant has pushed infections to record levels but the government wants to avoid another lockdown.

ALSO READ: How Omicron highlights fading hope of herd immunity from COVID

"Making COVID-19 vaccination compulsory is an emergency exit… out of the constant restrictions on our personal and fundamental rights like the ones we have had to endure in the past two years," the leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, who is also a doctor, told parliament.

Many lawmakers from her party and the liberal Neos backed the bill, joining the government coalition of conservatives and Greens, meaning it cleared its main hurdle easily with 137 votes for to 33 against.

The bill imposes fines of up to 600 euros ($680) on holdouts once checks begin on March 15. Those who challenge that initial fine unsuccessfully face a maximum fine of 3,600 euros.

Italy has made COVID-19 vaccinations compulsory for those aged 50 and older, while Greece has done the same for over-60s, and various European countries have done so for some professions like medical staff.

"This vaccine mandate strips people of their rights. In one move, millions of Austrians will be downgraded," said Herbert Kickl, leader of the far-right and anti-vaccine Freedom Party.

He added that the mandate would make holdouts "second-class citizens" and his party would challenge it in the courts.

A doctor holds a vial of the Sinovac Biotech's CoronaVac against COVID-19 as inoculation started in front of the Santo Antonio church in Mateus Leme, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, Jan 19, 2021. (DOUGLAS MAGNO / AFP)

Brazil

Brazilian health regulator Anvisa on Thursday approved the emergency use of Sinovac Biotech's COVID-19 vaccine Coronavac on those without underlying health risks aged 6 to 17, extending the country's efforts to inoculate children and teenagers.

The green light came as all five Anvisa directors voted in favor of the Coronavac shot, which is produced in Brazil by Sao Paulo's Butantan Institute.

According to Anvisa, the inoculation with Coronavac will take place in two doses with a 28-day gap in between.

"All available scientific evidence suggests there are benefits and safety in the pediatric use of that vaccine," Anvisa's manager for medicines and biological products, Gustavo Mendes, said.

In this file photo taken on Nov 24, 2021 a nurse prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children for distribution in Montreal, Quebec. (ANDREJ IVANOV / AFP)

Canada

Canada's most populous province of Ontario has blunted transmission of the Omicron coronavirus variant and will gradually ease restrictions on businesses from end-January, Premier Doug Ford said on Thursday.

The health care system is starting to stabilize in the wake of limitations imposed on Jan 5, Ford told a news conference, saying Omicron cases should peak later this month.

"We can be confident that the worst is behind us and that we are now in a position to cautiously and gradually ease public health measures," Ford said.

The province will allow restaurants, malls, and cinemas to operate with a 50 percent capacity limit from Jan 31, before removing more curbs in February and March.

"While February will continue to present its own challenges, given current trends these are challenges we are confident we can manage," Ford said.

In neighboring Quebec, premier Francois Legault said he would maintain restrictions to help protect the health care system even though Omicron cases had peaked.

"I understand we are all tired, but lives are at stake. I'm currently under a lot of pressure to remove measures, but my duty is to be responsible to protect the lives of Quebecers," he told a news conference.

Ontario and Quebec together account for around 61 percent of Canada's population of 38.2 million people.

Croatia

Croatia logged a record 11,343 new COVID-19 cases over the past 24 hours, and 43 related deaths, Health Minister Vili Beros said Thursday.

Moreover, there were 6,146 positive cases through fast antigen tests, bringing the total number of new infections in the last 24 hours to 17,489, Vili said  at a government session.

France's Prime Minister Jean Castex gives a press conference on the COVID-19 ongoing situation, in Paris, Jan 20, 2022. (JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

France

France will ease work-from-home rules from early February and allow nightclubs to reopen two weeks later as the general COVID-19 situation in the country is starting to improve, Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Thursday.

Caps on the number of people allowed into sports and entertainment venues will also be lifted on Feb 2, and masks will no longer be required outdoors from that date.

People will also again, from Feb 16, be allowed to eat popcorn – or other snacks – in cinemas. COVID-19 protocols in schools, which among other things require children to wear masks in class, could be relaxed after the winter holidays.

However a vaccine pass, which requires a certificate of vaccination to enter public venues like restaurants, cafes, cinemas and long-distance trains, will enter into force as planned, Castex said, saying it would be enforced from Jan 24.

The vaccine pass could be dropped later if the risk to public health from the pandemic eased significantly, he told a news conference. Health Minister Olivier Veran said that would depend on how much pressure hospitals are under.

A sign indicated the way to a free rapid testing center in the city of Duesseldorf, western Germany on Jan 19, 2022. (INA FASSBENDER / AFP)

Germany

Germany reported a record 140,160 new coronavirus cases on Friday, and sources said the health minister had warned that the country could see at least 400,000 cases per day by mid-February.

That figure would be reached under an optimistic scenario in which booster shots provide very good protection, Karl Lauterbach said in a discussion with state government leaders, sources involved in the talks told Reuters late on Thursday.

The number could climb to more than 600,000 daily new cases if the booster shots were less protective, he said, according to the sources.

Lauterbach also said he expected the number of patients in intensive care in hospitals to increase significantly in the coming weeks, the sources said.

The health ministry declined to comment.

More than 116,000 people have died in Germany in connection with the coronavirus. A week ago, Germany reported 92,223 new daily cases.

This handout photo obtained May 26, 2021 courtesy of Merck & Co shows capsules of the investigational antiviral pill Molnupiravir. (HANDOUT / MERCK & CO, INC / AFP)

Merck

Nearly 30 generic drugmakers in Asia, Africa and the Middle East will make cheap versions of Merck & Co's COVID-19 pill, under a landmark UN-backed deal to give poorer nations wider access to a drug seen as a weapon in fighting the pandemic.

Merck's early greenlight to production of its anti-viral pill molnupiravir by other companies during the pandemic is a rare example in the pharmaceutical sector, which usually protects its patented treatments for longer periods.

However, there are questions about molnupiravir which has shown low efficacy in trials and has raised concerns for side-effects, and lengthy procedures for approvals may delay supplies in many poorer nations for months.

Under the deal, negotiated by the UN – backed Medicines Patent Pool with Merck, the US company will not receive royalties for the sale of the low-cost version of the pill while the pandemic continues.

The MPP said the deal stipulated the pill would be distributed to 105 less-developed nations.

A molnupiravir course of 40 pills for five days is expected to cost about $20 in poorer nations, an MPP official involved in the talks with drugmakers told Reuters, citing initial estimates from drugmakers, which are subject to change.

That is far below the $700 per course the United States agreed to pay for an initial delivery of 1.7 million courses, but twice as high as first estimated by the World Health Organization -backed program to procure COVID-19 drugs and vaccines for the world.

The new agreement allows 27 generic drugmakers from India, China and other countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East to produce ingredients and the finished drug.

An MPP spokesperson said deliveries from some firms covered by the deal could start as early as February. However, that will be subject to regulatory approval.

People wait in line to receive a COVID-19 test on Jan 4, 2022 in New York. (ANGELA WEISS / AFP)

US

The US Department of Homeland Security is announcing Thursday it is requiring that non-US essential workers such as truck drivers and nurses who are crossing land borders be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, effective Saturday.

The Biden administration first announced in October that effective Nov 8 it would again allow non-essential foreign visitors to travel from Canada and Mexico into the US across land borders if they were vaccinated.

The US land borders with Canada and Mexico had been closed to non-essential travel for 20 months because of COVID-19 concerns.

DHS is announcing on Thursday it is extending those requirements to essential workers who are not US citizens or lawful permanent residents.

Starting Saturday DHS "will require that non-US individuals entering the United States via land ports of entry or ferry terminals along our Northern and Southern borders be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and prepared to show related proof of vaccination," said DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

Unlike air travelers, people crossing land borders are not required to show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test.

ALSO READ: US to distribute 400 million free N95 masks in COVID-19 fight

On Jan 15, Canada imposed its own vaccine mandate for US truck drivers crossing the Canadian border.

Because more than two-thirds of the C$650 billion ($521 billion) in goods traded annually between Canada and the United States travels on roads, truckers were deemed essential workers until now and traveled freely even when the Canadian border was closed for 20 months.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended the mandate on Wednesday that was announced in November, saying Canada was "aligned" with the United States, its largest trading partner

South Africa

The World Bank has approved a loan of $750 million to South Africa linked to COVID-19, aiming to help protect the poor and support economic recovery from the pandemic, the National Treasury said on Friday.

The continent's second largest economy, South Africa has been hit hard by four waves of infection that killed close to 94,000 people and infected 3.5 million in Africa's worst caseload.

Successive lockdowns meant to protect people have led to the closure of thousands of businesses, swelling an army of unemployed as South Africa's jobless rate hit records in 2021.

"The World Bank budget support is coming at a critical time for us," Dondo Mogajane, the director-general of the National Treasury, said in a statement.

Funds from the development policy loan would help bridge a financing gap stemming from additional spending on the COVID-19 crisis, he added.

Preparations take place at Stockholm's City Hall to convert the venue for the Nobel Prize banquets into a COVID-19 vaccination center for a day on Feb 21, 2021 in the capital of Sweden amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / AFP)

Sweden

Sweden will relax quarantine rules to prevent the collapse of critical services as the Omicron variant spreads across the country, causing staff shortages.

"We now see a massive impact on society due to COVID-19," said Sara Byfors from the Swedish Public Health Agency at a press conference on Thursday.

Several sectors have struggled with staff shortages recently, since many employees have been off infected with COVID-19, or in seven-day quarantine due to someone else in their household catching the virus.

The Swedish Police said that ten percent of their staff were off on Wednesday, and contingency plans were being prepared. Schools and transportation companies have also experienced severe staff shortages – and this is before the Omicron wave has even reached its peak, according to the Public Health Agency.

Under the newly relaxed rules, quarantine has been shortened from seven to five days – without symptoms the last two days, the agency said in a joint press conference together with the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency and the National Board of Health and Welfare.