* Netherlands starts COVID-19 vaccination drive
* European Medicines Agency meets on Moderna vaccine
* China tightens COVID-19 restrictions
* British parliament to vote on new lockdown measures
By Piroschka van de Wouw
VEGHEL, Netherlands, Jan 6 (Reuters) – A nurse received the first COVID-19 shot in the Netherlands on Wednesday, kicking off one of Europe’s last vaccination programmes for the coronavirus as the European medicines regulator considered approving a second vaccine.
Approval of the Moderna vaccine would be a big boost for Europe’s hopes of curbing a disease that has infected over 85 million people globally and killed nearly 1.9 million since the first cases were identified in China in December 2019.
Europe began its vaccination drive on Dec. 27 but it has had an uneven start as cases continue to surge across the continent and worldwide, with the World Bank warning that rising infections and delays in vaccine distribution could limit the global economic recovery to just 1.6% this year.
Authorities are also scrambling to contain two more infectious variants of the virus detected in South Africa and Britain which have driven a surge in cases.
The Dutch government has faced a public outcry after being left behind in the race to defeat the viral pandemic, and finally launched its vaccination drive on Wednesday morning.
DuSanna Elkadiri, a 39-year-old nurse who looks after dementia patients at a care home in the south of the country, received a shot of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.
“This is the beginning of the end of this crisis,” Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said at a brief ceremony.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine used by the Netherlands had received regulatory approval sooner than expected and that his government had expected a vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca to be approved first, reducing the Dutch authorities’ flexibility.
So far, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is the only one approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) though Moderna’s vaccine — which is easier to store and transport — is expected to become the second to win its endorsement later on Wednesday.
The roll-out has been a test for Brussels’ ability to unify Europe amid political pressure to speed up the process.
Some EU member states were frustrated at the length of time the EMA took to decide on the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, leaving it lagging the United States, Britain, Israel and Switzerland in approving and administering the first vaccines.
The regulator has given a conditional marketing approval, rather than the ultra-fast emergency use approval issued by Britain, which it says requires more detailed study of the data.
The two-dose Moderna vaccine has already been rolled out in the United States and Canada, and Israel this week become the first country outside North America to grant authorisation.
It was about 95% effecive at preventing illness in clinical trials that found no serious safety issues.
GOVERNMENTS UNDER FIRE
China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd has also developed a COVID-19 vaccine, but Beijing is still taking aggressive measures to prevent another wave of the disease that has killed 4,634 people in China.
Chinese authorities on Wednesday imposed travel restrictions and banned gatherings in the capital city of Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing.
Beijing has sought to reshape the narrative about when and where the pandemic began, with top officials highlighting studies they say show the disease emerged in multiple regions. It has also rejected accusations of wrongdoing or mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country.
The head of the World Health Organization on Tuesday said he was “very disappointed” that China still had not authorised a team of international experts tasked with examining the origins of the novel coronavirus into the country.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the two sides were still in talks about dates and arrangements for the visit. “There’s no need to over-interpret this,” she said.
Rolling out a vaccine quickly has not prevented other governments facing public criticism over their handling of the pandemic.
Although Britain was the first country to approve and start rolling out the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has been accused by political opponents of indecision after England began a new lockdown this week.
The British parliament was recalled early to vote on the new lockdown measures on Wednesday.
The French government has faced criticism after the national inoculation campaign got off to a slow start, hampered in part by red tape and President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to tread warily in one of the world’s most vaccine-sceptical countries.
France is now stepping up its COVID-19 vaccine rollout and a third national lockdown should not be ruled out, Eric Caumes, head of infectious diseases expert at Paris’ Pitie-Salpetriere hospital, told BFM TV.
Germany has decided to extend a nationwide lockdown until the end of this month and introduce tougher restrictions to try to curb the spread of the virus.
But Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said he believed Europe’s biggest economy could hold out for a long time, adding that he expected lower levels of government debt than after the financial crisis of 2008.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux, Writing by Timothy Heritage, Editing by Alison Williams)
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