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EU countries in blame game over sluggish vaccine rollout



EU governments are facing growing pressure to speed up Covid-19 vaccination rates as sluggish progress triggers an acrimonious political blame game.

The German government said it was considering a delay in administering a second dose of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine to make supplies go further, emulating a similar move by the UK last week.

The move came amid mounting criticism of health minister Jens Spahn, who has been accused of failing both to procure enough supplies of vaccine and to ensure a rapid start to the inoculation campaign.

Mr Spahn has come under fire for delegating the responsibility for securing stockpiles of the vaccine to the European Commission. But the government defended that approach on Monday, with spokesman Steffen Seibert saying it “was and is the right way”. 

The commission also hit back at criticism of its vaccine strategy, which was agreed by member states in June. “We have actually signed contracts that would allow member states to get access to 2bn doses, largely enough to vaccinate the whole of the EU population,” said Eric Mamer, commission chief spokesman.

He said it was “quite astonishing” that some people were asking why all doses were not immediately available, pointing to predicted manufacturing constraints, which meant distribution around the EU would gradually build up until a “big delivery” around April. 

“I don’t think that the issue is really the number of vaccines,” he told reporters in Brussels. “It’s the fact that we are at the beginning of a rollout.” 

So far, inoculation rates in the EU are lagging far behind other countries such as the UK and the US. Britain has vaccinated more than 1m people, while Germany has only administered about 265,000 shots of the 1.3m it has received so far.

One reason for the low rates is that the EU’s medical regulator gave its approval to the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine later than authorities in the UK, Israel and the US — though the EU body is set to give the green light to a second, made by Moderna of the US, in the next few days. 

The EU has signed contracts with a total of six vaccine producers, and confirmed on Monday that it was in discussions with Pfizer and BioNTech to secure more doses of their vaccine beyond the 300m shots covered by the current contract.

Authorities across the EU are also looking at workarounds to help make their supplies go further. The German health ministry is seeking the view of an independent vaccination commission on whether to increase the number of doses that can be squeezed out of a vial of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine from five to six, as well as whether to delay a second shot beyond the current 42-day maximum limit. The Danish Health Authority will allow a wait of up to six weeks before administering a second dose, according to its head Soren Brostrom.

A box of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines arrives in Madrid. Last week the city used only about 6% of the first 49,000 doses it received © Paul White/AP
A vaccination centre in Würzburg. The German government said it was weighing a delay in administering a second dose of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine © Alex Kraus/Bloomberg

One problem that has emerged is the apparent inability of some EU member states to distribute the vaccine doses they already have, with sharp regional variations in inoculation rates. 

“Our capacity to administer and deliver the vaccine is not quite in place yet across Europe — certainly we are seeing considerable diversity in performance,” said Flemming Konradsen, a professor at the University of Copenhagen’s public health department.

Spain is one country that has seen big regional swings. Madrid, for example, last week used only about 6 per cent of the first 49,000 doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine it received. Antonio Zapatero, regional leader of the Covid-19 response, blamed the sluggish start on a day-long delay in the first delivery of vaccines, as well as requests from nursing homes to wait until after the new year’s holiday.

For its part, Catalonia only used about 8,000 of the 60,000 doses it received. But other regions, such as Asturias and Galicia, have already used more than half their doses. Overall, Spain has deployed only about 18 per cent of its jabs.

In Italy, Giorgia Meloni, leader of the rightwing Brothers of Italy party, has launched an online petition to gather public support for a motion of no confidence in Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, in part due to his government’s handling of the vaccine rollout.

“We were concerned about the low number of doses that had arrived in Italy but the inability to administer these in time is all the more serious,” said Licia Ronzulli, a Brothers of Italy senator.

Domenico Arcuri, Italy’s emergency commissioner for the pandemic response, has said that his country is second in Europe only to Germany for the number vaccinated so far. So far 118,000 people have been vaccinated as of Sunday evening.

Reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin, Michael Peel and Sam Fleming in Brussels, Ian Mount in Madrid and Miles Johnson in Rome

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End of an era as Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona part company




Lionel Messi updates

Barcelona football club said on Thursday that Lionel Messi, widely regarded as one of the greatest of all players, is leaving because of “financial and structural obstacles” that it blamed on financial regulations imposed by La Liga, which runs the top two divisions in Spain, requiring the team to rein in its spending.

Messi, the frontman of FC Barcelona’s success for more than a decade, will be leaving a club where he has spent the entirety of his career, winning every leading trophy and personal accolade.

Messi and Barcelona had intended to sign a new contract on Thursday but ultimately the player and club were forced to separate, said Barcelona in a statement, adding that both sides “deeply regret” their split. La Liga declined to comment.

“Despite FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi having reached an agreement and the clear intention of both parties to sign a new contract today, this cannot happen because of financial and structural obstacles (Spanish Liga regulations),” Barcelona said. “As a result of this situation, Messi shall not be staying on at FC Barcelona. Both parties deeply regret that the wishes of the player and the club will ultimately not be fulfilled.”

Messi’s exit comes as Barcelona and rivals Real Madrid are at loggerheads with La Liga over the Spanish league’s plan to partner with private equity firm CVC Capital Partners, which plans to invest €2.7bn in the league, subject to clubs’ approval.

The exit of the superstar Argentina international, who earned a total of more than €555m between 2017 and 2021, according to Spanish newspaper El Mundo, underlines the financial pressures at Barcelona.

The Catalan club sunk to a net loss of almost €100m in the 2019-20 season, the first to be disrupted by the pandemic, as revenues of €855m fell short of the €1bn set in its budget. Its debt has soared north of €1bn. In June, the club approved a €525m debt refinancing.

On the pitch, Barca finished third in La Liga, its worst showing since 2008. It has not won the Uefa Champions League, Europe’s most prestigious club tournament, since 2015.

The decision comes just days after Barca president Joan Laporta said the club “have to make sure” Messi stays and that the process was “on the right track”. The president had also called for “greater flexibility” from La Liga.

Despite the long affiliation between Messi and Barcelona, the player last year told the club he wanted to leave but ultimately decided to stay on to avoid a legal dispute.

Messi’s departure comes a day after La Liga agreed a €2.7bn deal with US private equity group CVC Capital Partners to buy a minority stake in a new entity that would manage broadcast, sponsorship and digital rights for the league.

Barcelona and arch-rivals Real Madrid, which have been embroiled in a dispute with La Liga over plans for a breakaway European Super League, would stand to receive about €260m each from the deal with CVC.

The transaction was partly seen as a way to win over the support of Barcelona, which has been financially constrained by La Liga’s rules from making any high-profile acquisitions or renewal of contracts.

Real Madrid also lashed out at the CVC deal with CVC on Thursday, questioning its legality and accusing the Spanish league of negotiating the agreement without the club’s knowledge.

Barcelona followed up later on Thursday by joining Real in condemning La Liga’s planned partnership with the buyout firm. The club said: “FC Barcelona feels it is inappropriate to sign a half-century agreement given the uncertainties that always surround the football world. The terms of the contract that La Liga is describing condemn FC Barcelona’s future with regard to broadcasting rights.

“FC Barcelona wishes to express its surprise at an agreement driven by La Liga in which the teams’ opinions, including those of FC Barcelona, have not been taken into account.”

Spanish football clubs have yet to vote on the CVC agreement. Italy’s top football league, Serie A, turned down a similar agreement a few months ago.

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Europe targets adolescents for Covid jabs to curb Delta spread




Covid-19 vaccines updates

French President Emmanuel Macron, whose habitual garb in public is a dark suit and tie, switched this week to a black T-shirt to encourage the young to get vaccinated over the holidays. 

“Many of you have questions or are scared,” Macron said in one of several videos he posted on TikTok and Instagram from what seemed to be the presidential holiday residence in southern France. “So I’ve decided to answer your questions directly. Go ahead.”

He has also posted short videos to correct misconceptions about the vaccines and France’s supposedly “freedom-killing” insistence on health passports to access bars and other public places. “Vaccination saves lives, the virus kills — it’s as simple as that,” he said in one. 

Macron may be one of the EU’s more visible leaders to urge the young to be jabbed, but he is not alone. 

On Wednesday, the UK belatedly extended its Covid-19 vaccination programme to 16- and 17-year-olds. But across continental Europe, governments from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean have already been targeting as yet unvaccinated teenagers to fight rising infections and hospitalisations driven by the highly infectious Delta variant of the virus.

This vaccination drive, which anticipates the new school term starting in September, is partly why Europe has already overtaken the US in terms of vaccination rates per 100 people and, on current projections, will soon overtake the UK too.

In France, health ministry data show that more than 40 per cent of those aged between 12 and 17 have already received one jab, and nearly 20 per cent are fully vaccinated. (In the vulnerable age group between 70 and 80, full vaccination coverage is close to 90 per cent.) 

Chart showing that Europe and the US have already vaccinated millions of teens, leaving the UK far behind

Most Nordic countries have also started to vaccinate teenagers and, by the end of July, almost one-third of 12-15 year-olds in Denmark had received at least one jab. “We need the immunity of the population, especially before a winter season,” Soren Brostrom, head of the Danish health authority, said in June when announcing the decision.

Much the same is true in Germany, where more than 900,000 adolescents or 21 per cent of those aged between 12 and 17, have received at least one jab, and more than 10 per cent are fully vaccinated. 

Individual German parents and children already have had the legal right to get vaccinated since June, and several states had begun limited offerings of the jabs to 12-17-year-olds.

But health minister Jens Spahn announced on Monday plans to offer more jabs to youngsters before school begins. “This is absolutely not about applying pressure,” he said on RBB radio. “It is about giving those who want to be vaccinated, including children and adolescents, the opportunity.”

The next step in Europe will be to vaccinate young children, especially as Delta strain infections seem to be rising fastest among the unvaccinated young. In a recent UK study, almost a third of the positive Delta variant tests came from people aged 5 to 17.

“It’s clear that children under 12 will become the main reservoir of infections once a large share of the over-12 population is vaccinated,” said Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva. 

“It seems reasonable today to suppose that we’ll only be able to finish with this pandemic by vaccinating a very large share of the population, perhaps 90-95 per cent, by including children,” he said, noting that the jabs would have to be supplemented by other measures such as continued border controls as well.

In Spain, which has already overtaken the UK and the US in vaccinating its population, the government says its inoculation drive must now focus on younger people. 

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has declared that the country, where 59 per cent are fully vaccinated, deserves “the gold medal for vaccinations”. This week he said the country was on course to fully vaccinate 70 per cent of its population before the end of August.

But officials increasingly recognise that will not be enough to provide “herd immunity”. Infection rates in Spain — now in its fifth coronavirus wave — remain extremely high, with cases particularly prevalent among people in the 12-19 and 20-29 age groups; in the former, the full vaccination rate is less than 4 per cent.

High infection rates among these groups — with a 14-day rate of above 1,300 per 100,000 people — have spilled over to older groups. The 14-day rate among the over-eighties has been close to 300, even though according to official figures that age group is 100 per cent vaccinated.

“What is happening in Spain shows quite simply that the vaccinations do not have the same efficiency that was indicated in the trials . . . It is going to be more difficult to reach herd immunity,” said Rafael Bengoa, a former Basque region minister for health and director at the World Health Organization. 

He said the Delta variant — now accounting for more than 75 per cent of Spanish cases — was a key factor blunting vaccines’ impact and argued that the necessary level of protection would now probably require full vaccination for closer to 90 per cent of the overall population.

“We are only going to achieve this when we have revaccinated older people who are losing protection relatively quickly and when we have vaccinated young people and children,” he said. “The end is further away than we predicted.”

Additional reporting by Richard Milne in Oslo

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Global house prices: Raising the roof




Global house prices: Raising the roof

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