Australia urges EU to send 1 million COVID-19 vaccines for PNG amid fresh outbreak

By Colin Packham

CANBERRA (Reuters) – Australia said on Wednesday it will ask the European Union to release 1 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to help Papua New Guinea (PNG) battle a dangerous outbreak that authorities fear could spread to other parts of the region.

The request could inflame existing tensions between Canberra and Brussels amid claims of vaccine nationalism after the EU recently blocked an Australia-bound shipment of the doses.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday said the vaccines were contracted to Australia and were now badly needed to contain a surge in coronavirus cases in the Pacific island nation, parts of which are just a short boat ride from Australian territory.

“We’ve contracted them. We’ve paid for them and we want to see those vaccines come here so we can support our nearest neighbor, PNG, to deal with their urgent needs in our region,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

“They’re our family, they’re our friends. They’re our neighbors. They’re our partners… This is in Australia’s interests, and is in our region’s interests.”

“We confirm that the President of the European Commission has received a letter from the Australian Prime Minister on this topic and we will reply in due time,” a spokeswoman for the EU executive said on Wednesday.

Australia will donate 8,000 locally produced COVID-19 vaccines to PNG as an immediate response to the outbreak, and would make a million doses available as soon as they arrived from Europe, he said.

Earlier this month, the EU, at Italy’s request, blocked a shipment of 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca PLC vaccine to Australia, citing vaccine shortages in Europe.

It later denied Australia’s request to review the blockage, the first such refusal since Brussels established a mechanism to monitor vaccine flows in late January.

PNG has officially recorded over 2,300 cases since the pandemic began, a figure experts say vastly underestimates the true outbreak.

Prime Minister James Marape earlier this week said COVID-19 had “broken loose” as he warned local hospitals would soon be overwhelmed.

Marape has urged people to avoid unnecessary travel but his warning came as thousands of people gathered to mourn the death of Michael Somare, PNG’s first prime minister after independence from Australia.

Australian Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said the limited coronavirus testing being done in PNG was showing alarming results.

“When people are being admitted into hospital in Port Moresby, half of women who are coming in due to pregnancy are positive,” Kelly told reporters in Canberra.

Morrison warned an “uncontrolled” outbreak could produce a new variant of the virus that would affect not only PNG but the wider region.

Canberra will suspend all travel to and from PNG from Wednesday midnight, he added.

Australia said in a statement on Wednesday it has approached the United States, Japan and India, members of the so-called Quad group of Asia Pacific nations, to seek additional help for PNG.

FIGHTING CHANCE

A senior Australian government source said while the EU had justified blocking the shipment to Australia due to Canberra’s success in containing the virus, that rationale would not hold with PNG.

Aid agencies echoed the desperate need for vaccines in the impoverished country of almost nine million people.

“PNG needs a fighting chance to beat this, and frontline doctors and nurses could be the difference between keeping this under control or utter catastrophe for PNG’s health system,” said Marc Purcell, chief executive of The Australian Council for International Development, which represents aid agencies.

The government source said Canberra would lodge its request with the EU this week and an answer was likely within days. He declined to be named as he is not authorized to talk to media.

(Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney and Colin Packahm in Canberra; additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; Editing by Stephen Coates, Christopher Cushing and Sam Holmes)

EU drugs regulator clears J&J’s single-shot COVID-19 vaccine

By Muvija M and Pushkala Aripaka

(Reuters) – The European Union’s drugs regulator on Thursday approved Johnson & Johnson’s single dose COVID-19 vaccine, as the bloc seeks to speed up a stuttering inoculation campaign and boost its supplies.

The COVID-19 shot is the fourth to be endorsed for use in the EU after vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca-Oxford University and Moderna, and is recommended for those over 18 years of age, the European Medicines agency (EMA) said. It’s the first single-dose shot.

The United States, Canada and Bahrain have also approved the shot. South Africa is carrying out an expedited review.

“With this latest positive opinion, authorities across the European Union will have another option to combat the pandemic and protect the lives and health of their citizens,” EMA’s Executive Director Emer Cooke said.

Final approval by the European Commission is expected soon. EU conditional marketing authorization allows a treatment to be sold for a year without full data on its efficacy and side-effects being available.

The region is having difficulty taming a spike in cases driven by a more contagious variant of the coronavirus, with countries including Italy and France imposing fresh lockdowns.

J&J chief scientific officer Paul Stoffels described it as a “landmark moment” for the U.S. drugmaker and the world as governments struggle to control the pandemic which has crushed economies and killed more than 2.7 million.

The shot, called COVID Vaccine Janssen after the J&J unit that developed it, will help bulk up EU vaccine supplies after a faltering rollout due to delivery delays from Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

J&J has agreed to deliver at least 200 million doses to the EU this year, including 55 million in the second quarter, with the first shipments expected next month.

Exact volumes are not clear though and the U.S. drugmaker has told the European Union it is facing supply issues that may complicate plans to deliver the second quarter doses in full.

The news came as Norway and Denmark temporarily suspended the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine after reports of the formation of blood clots in some who have been vaccinated.

TRIAL DATA

In J&J’s 44,000-person global trial, the vaccine was found to be 66% effective at preventing moderate-to-severe COVID-19 four weeks after inoculation. It was 100% effective in preventing hospitalization and death due to the virus.

In its statement on Thursday, the EMA said the vaccine was found to be 67% effective two weeks after inoculation.

The side effects were usually mild or moderate and cleared within a couple of days after vaccination, it said. The most common ones were pain at the injection site, headache, tiredness, muscle pain and nausea.

Though many rival shots have reported a higher protection rate, J&J’s vaccine could help boost thin EU supplies and simplify inoculation campaigns because it does not require a second dose or need to be shipped frozen.

Direct comparison between headline numbers reported by different drugmakers is difficult because their trials had different goals, and J&J’s study was conducted while new, more contagious variants of the virus were circulating.

Its vaccine delivers immunity-building proteins through a weakened version of a common cold virus, similar to AstraZeneca’s shot. J&J has also used the technology in its EU-approved Ebola vaccine.

(Reporting by Muvija M and Pushkala Aripaka in Bengaluru; additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Brussels and Bart Meijer in Amsterdam; Editing by Josephine Mason, Mark Potter and Kevin Liffey)

Madrid halting COVID-19 vaccinations due to supply delays

MADRID (Reuters) – Delays to COVID-19 vaccine shipments have forced authorities in Madrid to halt inoculations and are threatening supplies in Catalonia, Spanish officials said on Wednesday.

The Madrid region has ceased first vaccinations for at least this week and next and was using the few doses it has to administer second shots to those who have had the first one, said deputy regional government chief Ignacio Aguado.

“We need more doses and we need them now,” he told reporters on Wednesday, urging newly appointed Health Minister Carolina Darias to act quickly to secure the shots.

U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer said last week there would be a temporary slow down in shipments to the European Union in late January caused by changes to manufacturing processes to ultimately boost output.

The announcement angered some EU governments and the executive European Commission due to the slow pace of vaccine roll outs in the 27-nation bloc.

It is also in dispute with Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, which developed its shot with Oxford University and notified the EU on Friday that it could not meet supply targets for the first quarter of the year.

Spain’s 14-day incidence of the virus hit a record 900 cases per 100,000 people on Wednesday and the Health Ministry reported 40,285 new infections and 492 deaths.

Officials in Madrid and Catalonia said at the current pace it would be impossible to reach the national target of 70% of Spain’s 47 million population vaccinated by July.

Catalan health secretary Josep Maria Argimon said the region would use up all its stockpile of vaccines in the coming days and will have to administer second shots later than planned due to supply delays, citing an undelivered shipment of the Moderna vaccine scheduled for this week as one example.

The affluent northeastern region will issue a new request for 30,000 vaccine doses that it expects to administer starting on Feb. 4, Argimon told a news briefing.

Spain has administered just over 1.3 million doses to a priority group of care-home residents and frontline medics, around 77% of its current stocks.

(Reporting by Inti Landauro, Emma Pinedo, Nathan Allen and Joan Faus; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Janet Lawrence)

UK AstraZeneca vaccine plant partially evacuated over suspect package

LONDON (Reuters) – A factory in Wales that produces AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine was partially evacuated on Wednesday after it received a suspicious package and police said a bomb disposal unit was dealing with the incident.

Operated by Wockhardt UK, the plant provides so-called fill-and-finish capacity for AstraZeneca’s UK supply chain, which is the final manufacturing step of putting vaccines into vials or syringes and packaging them.

AstraZeneca has agreed to supply Britain with 100 million doses of the vaccine, developed by Oxford University.

It is currently engaged in a dispute with the European Union after it cut supplies to the bloc due to production issues at its Belgian factory.

“Wockhardt UK in Wrexham this morning received a suspicious package to site. All relevant authorities were immediately notified and engaged,” the company said, referring to its facility outside the town of Wrexham in north Wales.

“Upon expert advice we have partially evacuated the site pending a full investigation. The safety of our employees and business continuity remain of paramount importance,” it said.

Local police confirmed that a bomb disposal unit was on site and advised the public to avoid the area.

“We are currently dealing with an ongoing incident on the Wrexham Industrial Estate,” they said in a statement.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout, Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Estelle Shirbon and David Clarke)

Shaken by new coronavirus strain, world shuts the door on Britain

By Gerhard Mey and Ben Makori

DOVER, England (Reuters) – Several countries closed their borders to Britain on Monday over fears of a highly infectious new coronavirus strain, causing travel chaos and raising the prospect of food shortages just days before the UK is set to leave the European Union.

India, Pakistan, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Russia, Jordan and Hong Kong suspended travel for Britons after Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned a mutated variant of the virus, up to 70% more transmissible, had been identified in the country. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman closed their borders completely.

Several other nations blocked travel from Britain over the weekend, including France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Ireland, Belgium and Canada – although experts said the strain may already be circulating in countries with less advanced detection methods than the United Kingdom.

The discovery of the new strain, just months before vaccines are expected to be widely available, sowed fresh panic in a pandemic that has killed about 1.7 million people worldwide and more than 67,000 in Britain.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo urged the U.S. government to take steps to prevent the variant entering the country, which has been worst hit by COVID-19 with almost 318,000 deaths.

“It’s high time the federal government takes swift action, because today that variant is getting on a plane and landing in JFK, and all it takes is one person,” he said.

U.S. Assistant Health Secretary Brett Giroir said nothing had yet been decided on any travel ban. As the pandemic accelerates there, Congress was poised to vote on a $900 billion COVID-19 stimulus package, after months of inaction.

EU officials met via video link to coordinate their response to the new strain of the coronavirus. The bloc is on course to start COVID-19 vaccinations within a week after its medicines regulator approved the use of a shot from Pfizer and BioNTech on Monday.

Experts said there was no evidence that vaccines would not protect against this variant, but added they were working around the clock to determine whether the mutations would affect how well the shots guarded against infection.

“Since the three vaccine forerunners target the spike protein, how the variant responds to the vaccines and the protection that the vaccine will offer does still need to be examined in detail,” said Saad Shakir, a professor and director at Britain’s drug safety research unit.

FOOD SHORTAGES WARNING

France shut its border to arrivals of people and trucks from Britain, closing off one of the most important trade arteries with mainland Europe.

“No driver wants to deliver to the UK now, so the UK is going to see its freight supply dry up,” France’s FNTR national road-haulage federation said.

As families and truck drivers tried to navigate the travel bans to get back home in time for Christmas, British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s said shortages would start to appear within days if transport ties were not quickly restored.

“If nothing changes, we will start to see gaps over the coming days on lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit – all of which are imported from the continent at this time of year,” Sainsbury’s said.

The global alarm was reflected in financial markets.

European shares slumped, with travel and leisure stocks bearing the brunt; British Airways-owner IAG and easyJet dropped about 7%, while Air France KLM lost around 3%.

Wall Street also felt the pain, with losses across the board. The S&P 1500 airlines index slid 3%, while leading cruise operators fell about 4%.

The British pound tumbled 2.5% against the dollar at one point before paring some of the losses, while the yield on two-year UK government bonds hit a record low.

‘SICK MAN OF EUROPE’

Johnson cancelled Christmas plans for millions of British people on Saturday due to the more infectious strain of the coronavirus, though he said there was no evidence that it was either more lethal or caused a more severe illness.

Britain’s tabloids bemoaned the crisis.

“Sick Man of Europe,” the Daily Mirror newspaper said on its front page beside a picture of Johnson, while the Sun newspaper said “French show no merci.”

The new variant and restrictions in Britain compound the chaos as the country prepares to finally part ways with the European Union, possibly without a trade deal, when the Brexit transition period at 2300 GMT on Dec. 31.

Talks on a Brexit trade deal were due to continue on Monday.

The new variant, which scientists said was 40%-70% more transmissible, is rapidly become the dominant strain in parts of southern England, including London.

Experts tracking the new strain said there was some early but unconfirmed evidence that it could transmit as readily among children as among adults, unlike previous dominant strains that appeared to be more easily able to infect adults.

‘2020 NOT DONE WITH US’

Cases of the new strain have also been detected in some other countries, including Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands.

Australia said two people who travelled from the United Kingdom to New South Wales, its most populous state, were carrying the mutated virus. It axed dozens of domestic flights while New South Wales locked down more than 250,000 people.

“2020 is not done with us yet,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

Some scientists said the prevalence discovered in Britain might be down to detection.

“Britain is simply the country which finds these mutations the most because they are looking for them more. There are countries that hardly search or do not search at all,” Marc Van Ranst, a virologist from the Rega Institute for Medical Research in Belgium, told broadcaster VRT.

“I think we will find in the coming days that a lot of other countries will find it.”

(Additional reporting by Kate Kelland, Toby Melville and James Davey in London, Laurence Frost in Paris, Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Sayantani Ghosh in Singapore, Frank McGurty in New York, Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha in Seoul, Renju Jose in Sydney, Shilpa Jamkhandikar in Mumbai and Farah Master in Hong Kong; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Pravin Char; Editing by Alison Williams and Mike Collett-White)

U.S., EU say they do not recognize Venezuela parliamentary vote

By Vivian Sequera and Deisy Buitrago

CARACAS (Reuters) -The United States, the European Union and more than a dozen Latin American countries said on Monday they would not recognize the results of a parliamentary election in Venezuela, which saw allies of President Nicolas Maduro win a majority.

Just 31% of 20 million eligible voters participated in Sunday’s election, the electoral council said early on Monday, less than half the turnout rate in the previous congressional elections in 2015. The opposition had boycotted the vote, calling it a farce meant to consolidate a dictatorship.

The results nonetheless return the congress to Maduro’s control, despite an economy in tatters, an aggressive U.S. sanctions program, and a mass migration exodus. An alliance of parties called the Great Patriotic Pole that backs Maduro won 68.9% of the votes cast, according to figures published on Monday.

“The United States, along with numerous other democracies around the world, condemns this charade which failed to meet any minimum standard of credibility,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Monday.

The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said the election “failed to comply with the minimum international standards,” while a group of Latin American countries including Brazil and Colombia issued a statement saying the vote “lacks legality and legitimacy.”

Earlier in the year, the Supreme Court had put several opposition parties in the hands of politicians expelled from those same parties for alleged links to Maduro – one of the major reasons the opposition had called the vote a sham.

The elections council was also named without the opposition’s participation, and Maduro refused to allow meaningful electoral observation. Maduro allies have said the electoral conditions were the same as a 2015 parliamentary vote the opposition won, and the government paid no heed to foreign criticism.

“Venezuela already has a new National Assembly,” Maduro said early on Monday, in televised remarks that were muted in comparison with his frequent triumphalism. “A great victory, without a doubt.”

The opposition in 2015 won control of the National Assembly in a landslide, but the pro-Maduro Supreme Court blocked even the most basic legislation. In 2017, Maduro supplanted parliament with the creation of an all-powerful parallel body known as the National Constituent Assembly.

Opposition legislators nonetheless used the platform to denounce Maduro around the world for human rights abuses, corruption, and economic mismanagement, proving a constant thorn in the side of the Socialist Party.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido last year also used his role as speaker of the National Assembly to stake a claim to be Venezuela’s legitimate president, on the basis Maduro’s 2018 re-election was rigged, earning the recognition of more than 50 countries including the United States.

Pompeo said on Monday that Washington “will continue to recognize Interim President Guaidó and the legitimate National Assembly.”

Retaking control of the congress will give Maduro few meaningful tools to restart an economy where a monthly salary or pension is often less than the cost of a kilo of meat or a carton of eggs.

It may lend his government more legitimacy to offer oil industry deals to companies willing to risk U.S. sanctions to tap the OPEC nation’s huge oil reserves.

But even traditional allies such as Russia and China, typically the most likely to challenge U.S. sanctions, have shown scant interest in an oil industry hollowed out by years of decay and the emigration of its most talented professionals.

The opposition is calling on sympathizers to participate in a Dec. 12 consultation that will ask citizens whether they reject the results and want a change of government.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera, Deisy Buitrago, Corina Pons and Mayela Armas; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Rosalba O’Brien and Chris Reese)

Foreign donors make Afghan aid pledges with tougher conditions

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United States pledged $600 million in civilian aid to Afghanistan next year at a key donor conference on Tuesday, but made half of it conditional on progress in U.S.-brokered peace talks underway with the Taliban.

Dozens of nations, international institutions and the European Union combined to pledge billions in aid for Afghanistan at the conference in Geneva. But many, including the United States and Germany, slapped strict conditions on future funding and some committed for just the next year – departing from four-year pledges made in the past.

Diplomats said keeping financing for Afghanistan on a tight leash could provide foreign governments with some leverage to inject a greater sense of urgency into a halting peace process.

“We’re pleased to pledge today $300 million…with the remaining $300 million available as we review progress in the peace process,” U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale said in a virtual address to the conference.

The United States has contributed roughly $800 million a year in civilian aid in recent years.

Another top donor, Germany, pledged 430 million euros ($510.88 million) in 2021 and signaled it would keep contributing until 2024 but also stressed that progress towards ending almost 20 years of war was needed.

Talks in the Qatari capital Doha between the Afghan government and Islamist Taliban insurgents began in September but have been mired in procedural wrangling as violence has resurged around the country.

But Hale said “significant progress” had recently been made, including a tentative agreement on ground rules that could allow negotiators to proceed to the next stage of forming an agenda.

As the donors conference proceeded, two explosions rocked an outdoor market in the central province of Bamyan, usually considered one of Afghanistan’s safest areas, killing at least 14 people and wounding almost 45, mostly civilians.

COVID-19 UNCERTAINTIES

During the lead-up to the quadrennial international donors conference, diplomats reckoned Afghanistan could receive 15-20% less funding than the roughly $15.2 billion pledged at the last conference in Brussels in 2016 due to uncertainties over the peace process and difficulties securing commitments from governments financially strapped by the coronavirus pandemic.

Uncertainty over whether the compromises needed for peace might lead to backsliding on human and women’s rights has also made some countries wary about making long-term commitments to an Afghan administration, which needs foreign money to cover about three-quarters of its spending.

The European Union pledged 1.2 billion euros ($1.43 billion)over four years on Tuesday but emphasized aid was conditional.

“Afghanistan’s future trajectory must preserve the democratic and human rights gains since 2001, most notably as regards to women and children’s rights,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said.

“Any attempt to restore an Islamic emirate would have an impact on our political and financial engagement,” he added, referring to the Taliban’s previous hardline Islamist rule between 1996 and 2001.

Conference organizers have said curbing corruption was another wish on the part of countries considering donations.

Some such as Britain announced pledges covering only one year.

Britain said it would pledge $227 million in annual civilian and food aid. France pledged 88 million euros ($104.20 million) and Canada 270 million Canadian dollars ($206.66 million).

($1 = 0.8413 euros)

($1 = 1.3065 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge; Writing by Rupam Jain and Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alistair Bell)

WHO chief looks forward to working ‘very closely’ with Biden team

By Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization chief welcomed efforts on Monday to strengthen the Geneva-based body through reform and said that it was looking forward to working closely with the administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden.

WHO’s funding must become more flexible and predictable to end a “major misalignment” between expectations and available resources, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, citing reform efforts by France, Germany and the European Union.

“We still have a lot of work left to do, but we believe that we’re on the right track,” Tedros told health ministers as the annual meeting resumed of the WHO, which groups 194 countries.

U.S. President Donald Trump has frozen U.S. funding to the WHO and begun a process that would see the United States withdraw from the body next July, drawing wide international criticism amid the COVID-19 crisis. He accuses the WHO of being “China-centric” in its handling of the pandemic, which Tedros has repeatedly denied.

Biden, who will convene a national coronavirus task force on Monday, said during campaigning he would rescind Trump’s decision to abandon the WHO on his first day in office.

Tedros urged the international community to recapture a sense of common purpose, adding: “In that spirit we congratulate President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and we look forward to working with this administration very closely.

“We need to reimagine leadership, build on mutual trust and mutual accountability to end the pandemic and address the fundamental inequalities that lie at the root of so many of the world’s problems,” he said.

An oversight panel called last week for reforms at the WHO including “predictable and flexible” funding and setting up a multi-tiered system to warn countries earlier about disease outbreaks before they escalate.

Tedros, speaking from quarantine after being in contact with an individual with COVID-19 more than a week ago, began with a minute’s silence, noting that COVID-19 cases approached 50 million with 1.2 million deaths.

Speaking shortly before Pfizer Inc said its experimental COVID-19 vaccine was more than 90% effective, Tedros said vaccines being developed to curb the pandemic should be allocated fairly as “global public goods, not private commodities”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge; Editing by Catherine Evans)

‘Great day for humanity’: Pfizer says COVID-19 vaccine over 90% effective

By Michael Erman and Julie Steenhuysen

(Reuters) – Pfizer Inc’s experimental COVID-19 vaccine is more than 90% effective based on initial trial results, the drugmaker said on Monday, a major victory in the war against a virus that has killed over a million people and battered the world’s economy.

Experts welcomed the first successful interim data from a large-scale clinical test as a watershed moment that showed vaccines could help halt the pandemic, although mass roll-outs, which needs regulatory approval, will not happen this year.

Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE said they had found no serious safety concerns yet and expected to seek U.S. authorization this month for emergency use of the vaccine, raising the chance of a regulatory decision as soon as December.

If granted, the companies estimate they can roll out up to 50 million doses this year, enough to protect 25 million people, and then produce up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021.

“Today is a great day for science and humanity,” said Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla.

“We are reaching this critical milestone in our vaccine development program at a time when the world needs it most with infection rates setting new records, hospitals nearing over-capacity and economies struggling to reopen,” he said.

Experts said they still wanted to see the full trial data, which have yet to be peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal, but the preliminary results looked encouraging.

“This news made me smile from ear to ear. It is a relief to see such positive results on this vaccine and bodes well for COVID-19 vaccines in general,” said Peter Horby, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the University of Oxford.

There are still many questions, such as how effective the vaccine is by ethnicity or age, and how long it will provide immunity, with the “new normal” of social distancing and face covering set to remain for the foreseeable future.

Pfizer expects to seek U.S. emergency use authorization for people aged 16 to 85. To do so, it will need two months of safety data from about half the study’s 44,000 participants, which is expected in the third week of November.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said it would take several weeks for U.S. regulators to receive and process data on the vaccine before the government could potentially approve it.

MARKETS SURGE

The prospect of a vaccine electrified world markets with the S&P 500 and Dow hitting record highs as shares of banks, oil companies and travel companies soared. Shares in companies that have thrived during lockdowns, such as conferencing platform Zoom Video and online retailers, tumbled.

Pfizer shares jumped more than 11% to their highest since July last year, while BioNTech’s stock hit a record high.

Shares of other vaccine developers in the final stage of testing also rose with Johnson & Johnson up 4% and Moderna Inc, whose vaccine uses a similar technology as the Pfizer shot, up 8%. Britain’s AstraZeneca, however, fell 2%. Moderna is expected to report results from its large-scale trial later this month.

“The efficacy data are really impressive. This is better than most of us anticipated,” said William Schaffner, infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. “The study isn’t completed yet, but nonetheless the data look very solid.”

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed the test results, and the market boost: “STOCK MARKET UP BIG, VACCINE COMING SOON. REPORT 90% EFFECTIVE. SUCH GREAT NEWS!” he tweeted.

President-elect Joe Biden said the news was excellent but did not change the fact that face masks, social distancing and other health measures would be needed well into next year.

The World Health Organization said the results were very positive, but warned there was a funding gap of $4.5 billion that could slow access to tests, medicines and vaccines in low- and middle-income countries.

‘NEAR ECSTATIC’

“I’m near ecstatic,” Bill Gruber, one of Pfizer’s top vaccine scientists, said in an interview. “This is a great day for public health and for the potential to get us all out of the circumstances we’re now in.”

Between 55% and 65% of the population will need to be vaccinated to break the dynamic of the spread of COVID-19, said Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn, adding that he did not expect a shot to be available before the first quarter of 2021.

The European Union said on Monday it would soon sign a contract for up to 300 million doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

The companies have a $1.95 billion contract with the U.S. government to deliver 100 million vaccine doses beginning this year. They did not receive research funding from the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine program.

The drugmakers have also reached supply agreements with the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan.

Pfizer said the interim analysis, conducted after 94 participants in the trial developed COVID-19, examined how many had received the vaccine versus a placebo.

Pfizer did not break down how many of those who fell ill received the vaccine. Still, over 90% effectiveness implies that no more than 8 of the 94 had been given the vaccine, which was administered in two shots about three weeks apart.

The efficacy rate, which could drop once full results are available, is well above the 50% effectiveness required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a coronavirus vaccine.

Shortly after Pfizer’s announcement, Russia said its Sputnik V vaccine was also more than 90% effective, based on data collated from inoculations of the public. Its preliminary Phase III trial data is due to be published this month.

MORE DATA NEEDED

To confirm the efficacy rate, Pfizer said it would continue its trial until there were 164 COVID-19 cases among volunteers. Bourla told CNBC on Monday that based on rising infection rates, the trial could be completed before the end of November.

Pfizer said its data would be peer reviewed once it has results from the entire trial.

“These are interesting first signals, but again they are only communicated in press releases,” said Marylyn Addo, head of tropical medicine at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany.

Dozens of drugmakers and research groups around the globe have been racing to develop vaccines against COVID-19, which on Sunday exceeded 50 million cases since the new coronavirus first emerged late last year in China.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine uses messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which relies on synthetic genes that can be generated and manufactured in weeks, and produced at scale more rapidly than conventional vaccines. The technology is designed to trigger an immune response without using pathogens, such as actual virus particles.

The Trump administration has said it will have enough vaccine doses for all of the 330 million U.S. residents who want it by the middle of 2021.

(Reporting by Michael Erman and Julie Steenhuysen; Additional reporting by Michele Gershberg in New York, Ludwig Burger and Patricia Weiss in Frankfurt and Kate Kelland in London; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Caroline Humer, Edwina Gibbs and David Clarke)

EU set to impose tariffs on $4 billion U.S. goods next week

By Philip Blenkinsop

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union is likely to impose tariffs on $4 billion of U.S. imports including planes and plane parts next week in retaliation over U.S. subsidies for aircraft maker Boeing, EU diplomats said on Friday.

A majority of EU governments have already backed the tariffs, which are expected to be put in place after a meeting of EU trade ministers on Monday.

“I would expect the tariffs to be imposed next Tuesday or Wednesday,” an EU diplomat said.

The move will echo U.S. tariffs on European goods over subsidies for Boeing’s rival Airbus. Combined, the two cases represent the world’s largest ever corporate trade dispute.

The World Trade Organization gave the European Union the right to impose counter-measures, but the United States said that there was no legal basis this and that, if the bloc chose to impose measures, it “will force a U.S. response”.

The move puts the long-running transatlantic trade dispute on the radar of the next U.S. administration, whoever wins the closely fought election.

The European Union could have acted at the end of October, just days before the U.S. election, but chose to delay in order to avoid potentially impacting the outcome. EU governments formally cleared the move on Tuesday, election day.

Tariffs are due to be placed on U.S. planes and parts, fruits, nuts and other farm produce, processed products such as orange juice, certain spirits and a range of other goods, from construction equipment to casino tables, diplomats said.

The European Commission said it was finalizing the process to exercise its retaliation rights in case no agreed solution could be found with Washington, including the immediate suspension of U.S. measures.

The United States Trade Representative had no immediate comment.

The United States already has tariffs on $7.5 billion of EU and British goods in relation to a parallel case over subsidies for European plane maker Airbus.

Chris Swonger, president and CEO of the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., said any tariffs on spirits would further devastate an industry that has already seen a 41% drop in U.S. whisky exports to Europe due to previous EU tariffs.

The tariffs also hand Britain, which left the EU this year, a delicate decision about whether to join its neighbors in imposing tariffs at a time when it is in the midst of trade negotiations with both the United States and European Union.

Britain’s trade minister said last week it would “keep all options open” to ensure it can respond to U.S. tariffs on Scotch whisky and other industries. Britain is one of four Airbus partner nations alongside France, Germany and Spain.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop, additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Washington, Editing by Tim Hepher)