Vaccine Passports, Numbers Fluctuate, Vaccine Safety: Global Weekly Highlights

Medscape, Univadis, & MediQuality Staff

March 12, 2021

These are the global coronavirus stories you need to know about this week.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said a preliminary inquiry found no evidence linking the AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine to illness in two people who received it in Austria, one of whom subsequently died. The EMA said this batch had been delivered to 17 EU countries and comprised one million vaccine doses. Denmark, Norway, and Iceland suspended the use of the vaccine following reports of blood clots in some people who'd been vaccinated.

China has introduced a digital vaccination certificate for people considering cross-border travel. The COVID-19 passport will display the user's current vaccination status, as well as recent test results.

Israel has also launched a similar green pass system, which allows fully vaccinated people and those recovered from COVID-19 to access public facilities that would otherwise be off limits. More than 3.7 million of the country's 9.3 million population have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine so far.

Japan will host the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics without foreign spectators. The Games, postponed by a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, are scheduled to begin on July 23. 

People in Japan who received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine appear to have experienced higher anaphylaxis rates than in the United States and Europe, according to  The Japan Times . The vaccines minister reported 17 cases of anaphylaxis among the 107,558 health care workers who have been vaccinated. The rate compares with 5 cases in every million doses administered in the US and 20 cases per million in the UK.

Vietnam began its COVID-19 vaccination programme on March 8, with priority given to healthcare workers. Vietnam has been praised for its handling of COVID-19. The country with a population of 96 million recorded around 2500 COVID-19 cases and 35 deaths. 

New Zealand has signed an agreement to secure an additional 8.5 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to give it enough doses to fully vaccinate its population of five million. 

Belgium extended its Pfizer/BioNTech dose interval to 35 days/5 weeks to help accelerate its vaccination campaign. So far, only 6% of the population has received at least one vaccine dose and vaccination of caregivers has only just started.

In France, the number of COVID-19 cases continues to increase and hospitals and clinics in Ile-de-France have been asked to postpone 40% of operations to free up hospital beds. First vaccination doses have now been given to 8.2% of the adult population and 4% have had both doses. There is a low vaccination uptake among healthcare professionals and the National Academy of Medicine is recommending making COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for caregivers. General practitioners have criticised  delays in vaccine deliveries, especially as vaccine orders have been reserved for pharmacists this week.

In the UK, children went back to school in England on Monday in the first stage of Boris Johnson's 'cautious roadmap' out of lockdown, while advisers warned of a fresh surge if restrictions are eased too soon. MPs have criticised the £37 billion cost of England's test and trace service which failed to avoid the need for more lockdowns. As of Tuesday, there have been 23 million first dose vaccinations and 1.35 million second doses. Total deaths within 28 days of a positive test now stand at 125,168. There have been 143,259 deaths with COVID-19 on the death certificate.

UK researchers identified a blood marker, a cytokine called GM-CSF, that could help identify people at a higher risk of developing severe COVID-19. The findings were published in  Science Immunology.  

An analysis of first wave heart attack patients published in  Aging Clinical and Experimental Research  found racial disparities with the authors saying clinical guidelines should be reviewed to take into account additional risks for Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic groups.

In Italy, the Government is changing its vaccination plan to accelerate the programme. Only 19% of people over 80 have been fully vaccinated. After health workers and elderly people, priority will now go in age order rather than priority groups to simplify the system. Fragile patients and special groups, like essential workers and teachers, are protesting. This decision has been criticised by patient groups and key workers. Eleven out of 23 regions have already exceeded ICU availability thresholds. The whole country is expected to be declared a red zone in the next few days and a strict lockdown is planned for the Easter holidays. The number of COVID-19 patients with long term neurological diseases is increasing and the Italian Neurological Society launched a national multicentric study on neuroCOVID.

Spain will pilot a COVID-19 passport, coordinated by the European Union. It aims to test the suitability of digital COVID-19 vaccination certificates, "to be ready for use when the pandemic data allows it", the Minister of Industry, Commerce and Tourism said.

Travel restrictions have been announced for Easter week, although the number of new cases is currently going down. 

The General Council of Official Medical Associations has asked the Minister of Health to revise the decision not to offer the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to over-55s.  

In Portugaltransmission rates fell to the lowest levels in Europe, after record cases and deaths in January, due to a continuing lockdown.

The country's R number is currently 0.74 and health authorities say the vaccination programme is starting to show decreased ICU admissions in over-80s. As of Tuesday, first doses have been given to 748,575 people, around 7.48% of the population, and 295,516 second doses have been administered.

In Brazil, new infections remain out of control. With the highest number of COVID-19 daily deaths recorded on Tuesday (1954). Thirteen states have more than 90% of intensive care beds occupied.

In São Paulo, at least 30 patients with COVID-19 have died waiting for an ICU bed since the beginning of the month. Vaccination remains slow with supply issues. As of Tuesday, 4.13% of the population have had at least one dose.

The US CDC said that people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can safely gather unmasked and inside with non-vulnerable people who are not yet vaccinated. The agency recommends vaccinated people continue to wear masks and maintain physical distancing in public settings, around people at high risk of severe disease, or when visiting unvaccinated people from more than one household. Vaccinated people should still avoid unnecessary travel.

The CDC also announced that pregnant women can safely be vaccinated with the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. Data from more than 30,000 women who received these vaccines have reported pregnancies through the CDC's V-Safe voluntary reporting system, and their rates of complications were not significantly different from those of unvaccinated pregnant women.

See more global coronavirus updates in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.


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