India approves vaccines as virus fight resurges

NEW DELHI (AFP) – India yesterday approved emergency use of two COVID-19 vaccines to kick off one of the world’s biggest inoculation drives, while the European Union (EU) offered to help drug companies expand production to ease distribution bottlenecks.

India, the second-worst affected country, has authorised use of shots developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University and by local pharmaceutical firm Bharat Biotech, the country’s drug regulator said.

The Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest manufacturer of vaccines, has said it is making between 50 and 60 million doses a month of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, which is cheaper than the Pfizer-BioNTech jab and easier to store and transport.

India has set an ambitious target of inoculating 300 million of its 1.3 billion people by mid-2021.

Countries around the globe are hoping that the roll-out of vaccines will bring under control a pandemic which has infected 84.6 million people and killed more than 1.8 million since it first emerged in China just over a year ago.

People walk past a poster placed outside a government hospital during a COVID-19 vaccine delivery system trial in Hyderabad, India. PHOTO: AP

But there is a worldwide shortage of vaccine production capacity, the EU’s top health official said on Saturday, offering help to drug firms amid concerns over the speed of vaccinations across Europe.

“The situation will improve step by step,” as vaccines roll out, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told German news agency DPA.

With vaccine production and mass inoculation programmes likely to take months, countries have tightened restrictions to fight a virus resurgence as experts predict a sharp rise in cases after weeks of holiday gatherings. From local curfews to alcohol bans and complete lockdowns, governments are trying to tackle a surge in infections.

In Bangkok, the city’s nightlife shut down following a ban on social places and restaurant alcohol sales, among a raft of restrictions aimed at curbing Thailand’s rising virus toll after an outbreak at a seafood market last month.

Public schools in the Thai capital are also set to close for two weeks.

In Tokyo, the city’s governor asked the Japanese government to declare a new state of emergency as the country battles a third wave, with record numbers of new cases.

And South Korea extended its anti-virus curbs until January 17 in the greater Seoul area, including a ban on gatherings of more than four people, which will be widened to cover the whole country.

The soaring number of infections means the race to vaccinate is likely to dominate the coming year.

India has held nationwide drills to prepare for one of the world’s biggest inoculation programmes, which is expected to kick off in the coming weeks.