India has staged nationwide drills to start one of the world’s biggest coronavirus vaccination programmes as the drug regulator prepared to approve the first vaccine.

A government panel yesterday recommended emergency use of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University shot and the first injections could be given in the coming week after the Drugs Control Authority of India gives final approval.

India, which has the world’s second highest number of pandemic cases – more than 10.2 million – has set an ambitious target of inoculating 300 million of its 1.3 billion people by mid-2021.

Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest vaccine producer, has already stockpiled tens of millions of doses of AstraZeneca’s Covishield ready for the campaign and 96,000 health workers have been trained for the inoculation drive.

The drills saw 25 health workers receive dummy vaccines at each of the centres to be used across the country in a test run ahead of the launch.

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Health minister Harsh Vardhan said the exercise would help build expertise “so that the upcoming vaccination drive may proceed without any glitch.”

He has also called for a campaign to counter “misleading rumours” that may scare people off getting the vaccine.

While India is only second to the United States for the number of cases, its rate of infection has come down significantly from a mid-September peak of 90,000 plus cases daily and its fatality rate is lower than other badly affected countries.

Britain and Argentina this week authorised the AstraZeneca vaccine while the World Health Organization on Thursday granted emergency validation to the rival Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Covishield is expected to get more use in India as it can be stored and transported under normal refrigeration while the Pfizer shot needs ultra low temperatures for storage.

France tightens virus curfew in several regions

The French government said it is bringing forward its nighttime curfew by two hours in 15 regions to help combat the coronavirus, as infections remain high.

The 15 of France’s 101 departments affected by the switch from today, to a curfew beginning at 6pm rather than 8pm, include the Les Alpes-Maritimes department where the Mediterranean city of Nice is located.

The other areas are concentrated in the east of the country.

Paris has, for now, been spared the additional restriction.

“The virus is continuing to spread in France… but with a disparity between regions,” said government spokesman Gabriel Attal as he announced the move.

“If the situation were to deteriorate further in certain areas, we will take the necessary decisions,” he told TF1 broadcaster.

The measure had been urged by mayors increasingly concerned that their local health systems are being overburdened by an influx of new cases.

Mr Attal also confirmed that theatres, cinemas and concert halls would not be able to reopen from 7 January, the most recent minimum date given for their closure.

Mr Attal meanwhile defended the pace of France’s campaign to vaccinate against Covid-19, which TF1 noted has seen just 332 people vaccinated in the country so far compared with over 130,000 in Germany since it began last weekend.

Arguing that France was targeting its campaign on care homes for the elderly which took more time, he said: “We are not going to judge a vaccination campaign that will last six months in just a few days”.

US passes 20 million coronavirus cases: Johns Hopkins

The United States has recorded more than 20 million cases of Covid-19, Johns Hopkins University said in its real-time tally, as the New Year brought another grim milestone underlining the country’s struggle to quell the virus.

The US has so far registered 20,007,149 cases and 346,408 deaths in the pandemic, the Baltimore-based university said, making it the country with by far the highest official number of cases and the highest death toll.

On Wednesday alone, more than 3,900 people died of Covid-19 in the US, a new daily record, and experts believe the worst is yet to come as health care workers brace for a surge in cases and deaths after holiday gatherings.

More than 125,000 people are currently hospitalised with coronavirus – another record – according to the Covid Tracking Project.

The country has begun a mass campaign of vaccinations and nearly 2.8 million people have already received their first jabs, a figure well behind the 20 million inoculations that the administration of President Donald Trump promised by the end of the year.

More than 12 million doses have been distributed nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but efforts to vaccinate health workers and vulnerable people have been hampered by logistical problems and overstretched hospitals and clinics.

Under Mr Trump, US authorities have given often mixed messages on mask-wearing, social distancing and shutdowns, and the outgoing president has repeatedly downplayed the risks while cases have rocketed across the country.

In his New Year’s Eve message, Mr Trump hailed the “medical miracle” of coronavirus inoculations, adding “our most vulnerable citizens are already receiving the vaccine, and millions of doses are quickly being shipped all across our country.”

According to Johns Hopkins, the US took several months to reach 10 million cases on November 9, before accelerating to 20 million cases on Friday.

After the US, the hardest-hit countries are Brazil with 194,949 deaths from 7,675,973 cases, and India with 148,994 deaths from 10,286,709 cases.


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