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UK authorizes COVID-19 vaccine from Oxford and AstraZeneca

A general view outside AstraZeneca Millcourt center.
A general view outside AstraZeneca Millcourt center.Nathan Stirk/Photographer: Nathan Stirk/Getty

LONDON — Britain on Wednesday became the first country to give emergency authorization to the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, clearing the path for a cheap and easy-to-store shot that much of the world will rely on to help end the pandemic.

In a bold departure from prevailing strategies around the world, the British government also decided to begin giving as many people as possible a first dose of coronavirus vaccines, rather than holding back supplies for quick second shots, greatly expanding the number of people who will be inoculated.

That decision put Britain at the vanguard of a far-reaching and uncertain experiment in speeding up vaccinations, one that some scientists believe will curb the suffering wrought by a pandemic that has been killing hundreds of people each day in Britain and thousands more around the world.

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Some participants in the clinical trial of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine were given the two doses several months apart. British regulators said on Wednesday that the first dose of the vaccine had 70 percent efficacy in protecting against COVID-19 in the period between that shot taking effect and a second shot being administered, though those figures held for a limited subset of trial participants and have not been published.

Together, the two moves by Britain — authorizing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and lengthening the gap between doses — offered the clearest signal yet of how countries still in the grip of the virus might hasten the pace of vaccination programs.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca shot is poised to become the world’s dominant form of inoculation. At $3 to $4 a dose, it is a fraction of the cost of some other vaccines. It can be also shipped and stored in normal refrigerators for six months, rather than in the ultracold freezers required by vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

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“This is very good news for the world — it makes a global approach to a global pandemic much easier,” said Stephen Evans, a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Of the decision to delay the second doses, he said, “In a pandemic, it will be better to get more people some level of protection than to have all of the people being vaccinated get full protection.”

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has imposed tighter restrictions on most of England, warning of “extremely tough” months ahead as his government races to roll out vaccines that can bring coronavirus under control.

Beginning Thursday, three-quarters of the population of England — 44.1 million people — will be in the top tier of lockdown measures as the new strain of the virus piles pressure on hospitals already stretched to capacity by the pandemic.

The return of students to schools after the holiday is also being delayed. Primary schools will stay closed for most children aged 5-11 across two-thirds of London, and in some areas around the capital. High school pupils across the country will be kept at home for a week longer than planned, the government said.

The measures come amid growing fears the National Health Service is at risk of being overwhelmed after the UK reported more than 50,000 new cases on Wednesday, with 981 daily deaths. The number of people hospitalized with coronavirus already exceeds the peak recorded during the first wave in the spring. A total of 72,548 people in the UK have died in the pandemic.

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New York Times and Bloomberg News

Senior Swedish officials seen ignoring COVID guidelines

A number of the most senior members of Sweden’s government, including the prime minister, have been caught apparently ignoring their own COVID guidelines.

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven and Justice Minister Morgan Johansson were among those named in Swedish media this week for seeming to flout restrictions they insist must be followed if the country is to rein in the coronavirus.

Lofven went Christmas shopping in a mall without a face mask after explicitly appealing to Swedes to avoid such excursions. His spokesman has acknowledged the trip took place, which he says was ’'carefully planned’' to avoid unnecessary risks.

The development adds a layer of potential embarrassment to Sweden’s handling of the COVID crisis. The country initially defended its no-lockdown strategy, before backtracking in recent weeks amid a resurgence of cases that threatens to overwhelm its health-care system. Lofven is now trying to persuade parliament to give him the power to impose a full lockdown.

The government has already seen confidence in its COVID strategy sink, with even King Carl XVI Gustaf delivering a rare rebuke for Sweden’s failure to contain the death toll. About 8,500 Swedes have died of COVID-19, roughly seven times as many as in neighboring Denmark.

Lofven’s shopping trip lit up Twitter, with several of Sweden’s best known political commentators warning that the incident risks denting his credibility among voters.

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Other government members have also reportedly engaged in conduct that breached COVID guidelines, including Sweden’s Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson, Aftonbladet reported on Wednesday. According to the newspaper, she was seen in a ski rental shop in the popular Swedish winter resort of Salen, which is on the list of destinations the National Health Authority has warned against visiting.

A spokesman for Lofven said his Christmas shopping tours included purchases of alcohol and a present for his wife. He also visited a shop that fixes watches and looked for spare parts for his razor. His most recent known shopping trip was on Dec. 23.

Bloomberg News

Germany suffers over 1,000 virus deaths in a day for first time

BERLIN — German officials made clear Wednesday that they won’t be able to relax lockdown restrictions in early January as the country recorded more than 1,000 deaths in one day for the first time.

That figure was likely swollen by delayed reporting but underlined the severity of the situation.

Germany, the European Union’s most populous country, shut restaurants, bars, and sports and leisure facilities on Nov. 2. That partial shutdown halted a fast increase in new infections for a while but failed to bring them down, prompting authorities to impose a fuller lockdown from Dec. 16, shutting nonessential shops and schools.

Those measures run through Jan. 10. Chancellor Angela Merkel and the governors of Germany’s 16 states will consult Tuesday on how to proceed.

“We have to lament 1,129 deaths this morning alone — 1,129 families will be in mourning this new year,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said at a news conference.

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“These figures show how brutally this virus is still striking. But the numbers of deaths and infections also show that we are a very long way from the normality we would like,” he added. “So in this situation, I don’t see how we can return to the pre-lockdown mode.”

“My expectation is that the lockdown will continue, because we must not take any further risks. The hospitals ... are at their limits,” said the governor of Germany’s most populous state, Armin Laschet.

The deaths reported to Germany’s national disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, over the past 24 hours exceeded the previous record set a week ago of 962 and brought Germany’s total death toll to 32,107.

Associated Press