Virus: Sweden doesn’t advocate jabs for kids under 12

A medial worker holds a tray with syringes and a vial containing Comirnaty, Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine against COVID-19, as 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 Feb21, 2021 in the capital of Sweden, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / AFP)

LONDON / PARIS / ATHENS / BERLIN / MOSCOW / ABUJA / STOCKHOLM – Swedish children under the age of 12 will not be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they have underlying medical conditions, the country's Public Health Agency said on Thursday. 

After consulting with pediatric associations and authorities, the agency said that the benefits of vaccinating healthy children did not outweigh the potential risks

After consulting with pediatric associations and authorities, the agency said that the benefits of vaccinating healthy children did not outweigh the potential risks.

However, the agency's Director-General Karin Tegmark Wisell added at a press conference: "We are constantly assessing … how the pandemic develops in Sweden and the rest of the world and will make a new assessment ahead of the autumn term."

Currently, Sweden only recommends vaccinating children aged between 5 and 11 who are particularly susceptible to respiratory infections.

Meanwhile, with the Omicron wave in full swing in the country, Britta Bjorkholm of the health agency said: "We are still in an upward trend, but we believe that the peak will be reached soon, although it is difficult to say exactly when."

The Swedish government hinted on Wednesday that most restrictions could be eased from Feb. 9. However, with infection rates soaring, the agency criticized the public for not following the recommendation to wear face masks on public transport.

On Thursday, the total number of infections among Sweden's population of 10.4 million people surpassed two million. Due to insufficient testing capacity, the health agency estimates that currently some 500,000 individuals are being infected per week.

A woman receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 at a vaccination centre in Santiago, on Dec 23, 2021. (JAVIER TORRES / AFP)

Chile

The confirmed COVID-19 cases in Chile have multiplied in recent weeks due to the Omicron variant of the virus, registering a new record of 24,037 infections in 24 hours on Thursday, as well as a 299-percent jump in two weeks, according to the Ministry of Health.

The ministry also reported 47 deaths related to the disease in the past day, bringing the total caseload to 2,045,874 infections and the death toll to 39,594.

In this file photo taken on Dec 2, 2020, the logo of US multinational pharmaceutical company Pfizer is pictured at a factory in Puurs. (KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

EU

The European Union's drug regulator on Thursday gave the green light to Pfizer Inc's antiviral COVID-19 pill for treating adults at risk of severe illness, as the region scrambles to boost its arsenal to fight the Omicron variant.

The endorsement by the European Medicines Agency for a conditional approval, if followed as usual by the European Commission, allows EU member states to deploy the drug after the regulator gave guidance for its emergency use late last year

The endorsement by the European Medicines Agency for a conditional approval, if followed as usual by the European Commission, allows EU member states to deploy the drug after the regulator gave guidance for its emergency use late last year.

Italy, Germany and Belgium are among a handful of EU countries that have bought the drug, branded as Paxlovid.

The United States in December authorized Paxlovid and Merck's similar drug molnupiravir. 

EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said the bloc was now making good progress on lining up treatments, which she described as a second line of defense after vaccines.

"Paxlovid is the first oral antiviral for home use in our portfolio, and has the potential to make a real difference for persons at high risk of progression to severe COVID," she said.

Merck's pill is also under review in the EU, but is taking longer to approve because the company revised its trial data in November, saying the drug was significantly less effective than previously thought.

Paxlovid, a two-drug antiviral regimen, was nearly 90 percent effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths in patients at high risk of severe illness, according to data from the company's clinical trial. Recent lab data suggests the drug retained its effectiveness against the Omicron variant as well.

In the trial however, it was only tested on unvaccinated individuals, raising questions on its potential use in high-risk patients who did get inoculated. EMA did not limit its endorsement to the non-vaccinated.

A woman is about to receive a dose of a vaccine against the COVID-19 in a social center of La Gavotte Peyret popular neighborhood in Septeme-Les-Vallons on Jan 12, 2022. (CLEMENT MAHOUDEAU / AFP)

France

The head of the Paris hospitals system has set off a fierce debate by questioning whether people who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19 should continue to have their treatment covered by public health insurance.

Under France's universal healthcare system, all COVID patients who end up in intensive care are fully covered for their treatment, which costs about 3,000 euros ($3,340) per day and typically lasts a week to 10 days.

"When free and efficient drugs are available, should people be able to renounce it without consequences … while we struggle to take care of other patients?" Paris AP-HP hospitals system chief Martin Hirsch said on French television on Wednesday.

Hirsch said he raised the issue because health costs are exploding and that the irresponsible behaviour of some should not jeopardise the availability of the system for everyone else.

Several French health professionals rejected his proposal, far-right politicians called for Hirsch to be fired, and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo – who chairs the AP-HP board and who is the socialist candidate in the April presidential elections – said she disagreed with his proposal.

Five-year-old Noah is inoculated with the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine for children at a vaccination centre set up at a car dealership in Iserlohn, western Germany on Jan 5, 2022. (NA FASSBENDER / AFP)

Germany

The number of new COVID-19 infections in Germany exceeded 200,000 in a day for the first time on Thursday, hitting staffing at companies including Lufthansa Cargo.

The Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases reported 203,136 positive tests in the last 24 hours, 69,600 cases more than the same day a week ago.

The seven-day incidence per 100,000 people rose to 1,017 from 941 the previous day, while another 188 people died, bringing the death toll since the start of the pandemic in early 2020 to 117,314.

Uwe Janssens, a board member of the DIVI association of emergency and intensive care doctors, told Reuters that hospitals were not currently overloaded, but that could change in coming weeks.

He warned that if the number of daily infections rises above 300,000 then there could be problems for Germany's critical infrastructure. Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has predicted daily cases could exceed 400,000 by mid-February.

Airline group Lufthansa's cargo arm said a staffing crunch at its hub in Frankfurt meant it was currently unable to handle sorting of loose freight from the United States, Canada and Europe.

The German Hospitals Federation had warned earlier this week that three-quarters of hospitals were reporting higher than usual numbers of staff out on sick leave.

German lawmakers debated on Wednesday whether to impose compulsory COVID-19 shots, while protesters gathered outside the parliament building.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz backs compulsory vaccines for over-18s but his coalition government is divided on the issue and he has told lawmakers to vote according to their conscience.

Many lawmakers, including some from the coalition's junior partner, the liberal Free Democrats, oppose mandatory vaccines, arguing this violates the second article of Germany's constitution that guarantees citizens control over their own bodies.

Pedestrians wearing face masks as a protection against COVID-19 walk near Kotzia square in the center of Athens on Dec 19, 2021. (ANGELOS TZORTZINIS / AFP)

Greece

Greece will allow music in restaurants and bars again and extend their operating hours as it lifts some of the restrictions imposed last month now that coronavirus infections and the pressure on hospitals are easing, authorities said on Thursday.

The country last month forced bars, nightclubs and restaurants to close at midnight, with no standing customers and no music, following a surge of cases over the Christmas holidays due to the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

"We have decided to scale back the restrictions, taking into consideration the course of the pandemic in terms of cases which have been declining in recent weeks," Health Minister Thanos Plevris said in a televised statement.

He said that despite ongoing pressure on the health system, the rate of hospital admissions and discharges and a shorter duration and less severe illness for the Omicron variant compared to Delta allowed authorities to ease the curbs.

Nigeria

Nigeria's vaccine rollout has slowly gained pace since then as public confidence increases and the government has assured citizens they will not receive expired doses.

Nigeria, like other African countries, initially struggled to get doses. Deliveries later picked up, but some shots donated by individual countries or via the global vaccine-sharing scheme COVAX arrived with a very short shelf life, leading them to expire.

Nigeria has said it will no longer accept vaccines close to expiry. 

The daily vaccine uptake doubled to 200,000 doses in December and January, Faisal Shuaib, head of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency said.

A woman wearing a face mask walks in Moscow on Oct 5, 2021. (DIMITAR DILKOFF / AFP)

Russia

Russia's daily COVID-19 cases surged to 98,040 on Friday, a new record high for the eighth consecutive day as the Omicron variant continued to spread, the government's coronavirus task force said.

The number of new infections was a significant jump from the 88,816 reported on Thursday. Officials also said that 673 people had died in the last 24 hours.

A man receives a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Babington Hospital in Belper on Dec 16, 2021 as the UK steps up the country's booster drive to fight a "tidal wave" of Omicron. (OLI SCARFF / AFP)

UK

COVID-19 boosters increase protection against death from the Omicron variant to 95 percent in people aged 50 or over, the UK Health Security Agency said on Thursday.

The UKHSA said that around six months after a second dose of any of the COVID-19 vaccines, protection against death with Omicron was around 60 percent in those aged 50 and over. However, this increased to around 95 percent two weeks after receiving a booster vaccine dose.

UKHSA added that data continued to show high levels of protection against hospitalization from the booster. Effectiveness against hospitalization was around 90 percent for the Pfizer-BioNTech shot , dropping to 75 percent 10-14 weeks after the booster.

For Moderna, effectiveness against hospitalization was 90-95 percent up to 9 weeks after the booster.

"The evidence is clear – the vaccine helps to protect us all against the effects of COVID-19 and the booster is offering high levels of protection from hospitalization and death in the most vulnerable members of our society," said Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunization at UKHSA.