Belgian regulators have launched an investigation into AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine production site near Brussels on the request of the European commission, in an escalation of the row over shortages within the EU.
A first visit by officials from the Belgian federal medicines agency was completed on Wednesday at the site in Seneffe, Hainaut, the health ministry in Belgium said. Samples and records were taken from the plant and a further inspection of the facility is expected in the coming days.
The investigation was requested by the EU’s executive branch due to doubts over AstraZeneca’s explanation of an expected shortfall in vaccine deliveries to the EU.
The Anglo-Swedish company has said it will be able to deliver to EU member states only about 25% of the 100m doses expected by the end of March due to a production problem at the Belgian site owned by the French life-sciences company Novasep. The vaccine is expected to be authorised by the European medicines agency on Friday.
The World Health Organization’s Europe director has said vaccine manufacturers are working hard to make up shortfalls in supplies and called on countries waiting for jabs not to compete.
Hans Kluge said governments and vaccine manufacturers should work together to resolve “teething problems” in the roll-out.
The reality is there is a shortage of vaccines... [But] we don’t doubt manufacturers and producers are working 24-7 to bridge the gaps and we’re confident the delays we are seeing now are going to be made up by extra production in the future.
Kluge said solidarity “does not necessarily mean that each country in the world starts vaccinating at exactly the same moment ... The good understanding is that no one is safe before everyone is safe.”
He said EU countries, which are trailing behind the UK, US and Israel in administering doses, “must be patient”. He said 35 European countries had begun vaccinations, delivering 25 million shots. “This will release pressure on our health systems and undoubtedly save lives,” he said.
Continued high rates of transmission and emerging variants of the virus made it urgent to vaccinate priority groups, and “the increasing expectation of science and vaccine development, production, and equitable distribution, is not being met as fast as we would all like”.
He said the resulting paradox, where communities “sense an end is in sight with the vaccine but, at the same time, are called to adhere to restrictive measures in the face of a new threat, is causing tension, angst, fatigue, and confusion”.
Kluge said 33 European countries had reported cases of the variant initially identified in the UK and 16 had reported the one first identified in South Africa. Lockdowns, however, were working, he said: 30 countries across the region had seen “a significant decrease in 14-day cumulative incidence”.
Vietnam, which has been widely praised for its success in controlling Covid-19, is preparing for tens of thousands of new infections after local transmission was detected in northern provinces for the first time in almost two months.
Coronavirus taskforce chief Vu Duc Dam warned authorities should be ready for as many as 30,000 new infections, according to reports by state media. Hours earlier, officials had reported 83 cases, the biggest daily number seen in the country.
Vietnam has managed to avoid the very high case numbers seen in many countries around the world, due to its early and effective use of contact tracing. The country has also imposed restrictions on entry, and introduced a strict quarantine policy. Since the start of the pandemic, it has recorded just under 1,600 cases, and 35 related deaths.
The country had gone 55 days without any local cases before infections were identified in the northern provinces of Hai Duong, where a factory worker tested positive, and Quang Ninh, where an airport worker was also found to have the virus. One of these cases has been linked to the more infectious strain of the virus found in the UK.
One village in Hai Duong has been placed under lockdown and about 2,340 factory workers have been put in quarantine while contact tracing is carried out.
Social distancing measures have also been introduced in Quang Ninh province, where all schools and educational institutions, including kindergartens and universities, have been shut until at least the end of the week. Large gatherings should also be minimised, and meetings avoided where possible, officials in the province said.
There are now proposals to stop all international flights and ban all large gatherings ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, which is just two weeks away.
Governments prioritised reopening the economy over people’s health, which resulted in “significant” Covid-19 outbreaks over Christmas, Australia’s top doctors body has said.
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) also argued at a parliamentary inquiry on Thursday that the Morrison government had failed to protect frontline health workers with new rules on protective gear.
The association’s president, Dr Omar Khorshid, giving evidence at the Covid-19 Senate inquiry, further warned the government might not meet its target of 4m vaccinations by the end of March due to supply disruptions.
Representatives from Pfizer and AstraZeneca, however, told the committee they were on track to provide the first vaccine doses in late February – although they recognised factors outside their control could delay the rollout.