EU secures extra vaccines; Republicans to meet Biden over Covid relief plan

Brussels (AFP) –


European Union efforts to secure Covid-19 vaccines received a much-needed boost after AstraZeneca promised to increase deliveries, while US Republicans were set to meet President Joe Biden to try and build bipartisan support for a huge national relief plan.

British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca will increase shipments of its vaccine to the EU by 30 percent, said European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen Sunday, as the bloc struggles to get its mass inoculation programme up and running.

AstraZeneca had had previously said it could deliver only a quarter of the doses originally promised to Brussels for the first quarter of the year, sparking outrage and accusations it was giving preferential treatment to Britain.

In the US, ten Republican senators were set to meet Biden on Monday to present an alternative to his $1.3 trillion relief plan, arguing that a scaled-down approach could garner the bipartisan support he has said he seeks.

Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, said that she had joined the group to present their own $600 billion package to help steer the world's worst-hit country out of historic health and economic crises.

The virus is known to have infected more than 102 million people so far -- with over 2.2 million deaths -- and countries are scrambling to vaccinate their populations and lift economy-crippling restrictions.

Kazakhstan began its campaign Monday, with top health officials receiving Russia's Sputnik V vaccine in front of reporters.

Deputy health minister Erlan Kiyasov said he didn't "feel any sort of discomfort" after receiving a shot.

Also getting vaccinated in front of the cameras was the leader of the Maldives, as the tropical archipelago began its own rollout using doses donated from India.

South Africa, meanwhile, was poised to take possession of a first shipment of 20 million AstraZeneca/Oxford doses.

Africa has fallen behind in the global vaccine scramble as wealthier nations have been accused of bulk-buying doses directly from manufacturers.

- UK hero hospitalised -

Volunteers lined up in a London skyscraper, waiting to be taught how to administer the vaccine after the government called for 30,000 individuals to help administer the Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca doses.

"When I had the opportunity to do something that made a difference, I definitely wanted to jump at it," documentary director Mike Day told AFP at Canary Wharf in east London.

More than 8.9 million people have already received a first dose of the vaccine in the United Kingdom, the first Western country to launch a massive vaccination campaign in early December.

However, Britain is one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, and on Sunday the family of Captain Tom Moore -- a 100-year-old former solider who won hearts with a Covid-19 fundraising drive -- was hospitalised with the virus.

Countries elsewhere in Europe were tightening restrictions as caseloads keep climbing.

A two-week ban on foreign travel took effect in Portugal on Sunday as the country grapples a surge in cases, further devastating the already-battered tourism industry.

European budget carrier Ryanair also announced a 306-million-euro ($371 million) third-quarter net loss on virus fallout Monday, and forecast an annual loss of between 850 and 950 million euros.

- Back to school -

In India, students in the southern tech hub of Hyderabad trooped into class for the first time in 10 months, with temperature tests in the playground before taking their seats in a classroom with "Welcome Back" chalked on the blackboard.

Top indie film festival Sundance got underway online Sunday, with all 72 feature films making their premiere via streaming -- a world away from the usual whirl of flashy, red-carpet screenings and after-parties high in the Utah mountains.

"Why make this movie?" said "House of Cards" star Robin Wright said ahead of the screening of her directorial debut "Land", a tale of solitude and isolation.

"We do face adversity, and it's generally the compassion and kindness of another person that gets us through that difficult time... I think we all can resonate with that right now."