EU begins vaccine rollout as new virus strain spreads

PARIS (AFP) – The European Union (EU) began a vaccine rollout yesterday, even as countries in the bloc were forced back into lockdown by a new strain of the virus, believed to be more infectious, that continues to spread from Britain.

The pandemic has claimed more than 1.7 million lives and is still running rampant in much of the world, but the recent launching of innoculation campaigns has boosted hopes that 2021 could bring a respite.

Hours before the first vaccine doses arrived in France, Paris’ health ministry confirmed late on Friday that it had detected its first case of the new variant in a citizen returned from Britain.

Several countries have reported cases of the new strain, which has sent jitters through already overstretched health services.

There was little sign of the usual Boxing Day sale rush on the streets of Sydney yesterday, as residents largely heeded the state premier’s request they stay home faced with a new virus cluster.

Officials carry boxes from the first shipment of Pfizer-BioNTec vaccines against the COVID-19 in Budapest. PHOTO: AFP

“Even when we entered the store there were less than 10 people,” shopper Lia Gunawan told The Sydney Morning Herald after queueing up for the sales.

Even as some European nations eye a post-holiday return to harsh restrictions, China’s communist leadership issued a statement hailing the “extremely extraordinary glory” of its handling of the virus that emerged in the country’s Hubei province last year, state news agency Xinhua reported.

Across the world, people are being urged to respect social distancing guidelines, as the World Health Organization (WHO) urged people not to “squander” the “great, heart-wrenching sacrifices” people had made to save lives.

The first French case of the new coronavirus variant was found in a citizen resident in Britain who arrived from London on December 19, the French Health Ministry said.

They are asymptomatic and self-isolating at home in Tours in central France, and contact-tracing has taken place for the health professionals who treated him.

The new strain of the virus, which experts fear is more contagious, prompted more than 50 countries to impose travel restrictions on the United Kingdom (UK), where it first emerged.

But cases of the new variant have still been reported worldwide: on Friday, Japan confirmed five infections in passengers from the UK, while cases have also been reported in Denmark, Lebanon, Germany, Australia and the Netherlands.