Buoyed by COVID-19 vaccine results, officials see ‘light at the end of the tunnel’

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Hugely promising results from a coronavirus vaccine trial fueled optimism around the world on Tuesday that humanity may be a step closer to defeating the crippling pandemic, though experts cautioned that major logisitical challenges lay ahead.

A vaccine is seen as the best hope to break the cycle of deadly virus surges and severe restrictions across much of the world since Covid-19 first emerged in China late last year, unleashing devastation on the global economy.

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On Monday, pharma giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech announced that their vaccine candidate was 90 percent effective in preventing Covid-19.

The news triggered an immediate market rebound for some of the industries hit hardest by travel curbs, social distancing and lockdowns.

“Bombed-out sectors such as aviation, travel, leisure, big oil… time-warped back to 2019 with giant rallies,” said Jeffrey Halley, senior market analyst from OANDA.

Wall Street and European markets soared after the announcement, and Asian markets continued the rally on Tuesday, with worst-hit sectors such as airlines, travel, entertainment and energy getting a boost.

“We are a significant step closer to providing people around the world with a much-needed breakthrough to help bring an end to this global health crisis,” Pfizer chairman Albert Bourla said.
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Pfizer and BioNTech’s candidate is one of more than 40, but no other has yet made similar claims about effectiveness.

The companies said they could pass the final hurdles for a US rollout later this month, and could supply up to 50 million doses globally this year and up to 1.3 billion next year.

The scientific community reacted positively, with top US expert Anthony Fauci describing the results as “extraordinary” and World Health Organization boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hailing the news as “encouraging”.

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But others pointed out that data from the ongoing trial was still needed for review, including the ages of the participants.

The Pfizer candidate uses the “messenger RNA” method to fight the virus, but a major disadvantage of such vaccines is that they need to be stored in specialist deep freezers as opposed to refrigerator-level temperatures required for some other types of prophylactics.

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Experts have raised concerns about the capacity of poorer nations, especially in warm climates, to set up safe supply chains for such a vaccine.

There was some bad news too. Brazil’s health regulator announced Monday it had suspended clinical trials of a Chinese-developed vaccine — one of the most advanced candidates — after an “adverse incident” involving a volunteer recipient.

Its maker Sinovac said it was confident in the safety of the vaccine.

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‘A very dark winter’

The coronavirus has infected close to 51 million people worldwide, with more than 1.2 million deaths.

The United States remains the hardest-hit nation at more than 10 million cases and nearly 240,000 deaths, and the pandemic was one of the top issues for voters in the presidential election this month.

Joe Biden, who had slammed President Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis, spared no time in announcing a Covid-19 taskforce after he was declared the winner of the election.

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“We’re still facing a very dark winter,” he said. “The bottom line: I will spare no effort to turn this pandemic around once we’re sworn in.”

Trump had clashed repeatedly with his own government experts, often refusing to back restrictions or even wear a mask in public. After the Pfizer announcement, he claimed — without evidence — that the news was delayed until after the election to damage him.

There was a separate breakthrough when the US Food and Drug Administration on Monday granted emergency approval to a synthetic antibody treatment for Covid-19 developed by the pharma company Eli Lilly.

Bamlanivimab, which was shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization and emergency room visits, is the first major drug to be approved that was designed specifically for the coronavirus.

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The vaccine news will be of particular relief to people in Europe — the current focal point of the pandemic and the region subject to the most widespread restrictions.

Portugal, Romania and Hungary began implementing night-time curfews this week while Italy was edging closer to a full lockdown, with experts warning of pressure on hospitals.
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“There is no doubt that the situation is largely out of control,” said Massimo Galli, head of the infectious diseases department at Milan’s Sacco hospital.
On Tuesday, German Health Minister Jens Spahn said he expected EU officials to sign a purchase agreement with BioNTech and Pfizer for their vaccine “in the coming days”.

The European Commission is in final stage talks with BioNTech-Pfizer over the supply of 200 million doses of their potential Covid shot, with an option to buy another 100 million.

Spahn said he did not expect the vaccine to be available before the first quarter of 2021 but added that he expected it to get approved quickly.

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News about the vaccine “was a light at the end of the tunnel”, the minister added, raising the hope that next winter will not be as bad as this one.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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