WHO rules out Covid herd immunity this year

England opens first of new mass-vaccination sites to battle coronavirus variant

People walk along the Mission Beach boardwalk in San Diego, California, U.S., on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021. San Diego County health officials confirmed Wednesday that the Covid-19 variant found in the U.K. and in Colorado was detected in a patient in San Diego. Photographer: Bing Guan/Bloomberg
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Scientists at the World Health Organisation issued a warning on Monday that mass vaccinations would not bring about herd immunity to the coronavirus this year.

England, meanwhile, launched the first of its mass-vaccination sites in major cities, racing to get ahead of the rapid spread of a new strain of the virus there.

The pandemic has infected more than 90 million people and the death toll has passed 1.95 million since China confirmed the first death in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019.

China has largely brought the virus under control but is tackling new outbreaks in some cities.

More than half a million people were placed under a strict lockdown in Beijing on Monday.

But infection numbers surged across Europe, particularly in Britain, where hospitals are being overwhelmed bas a new strain of the virus spreads.

On Sunday, Russia confirmed its first case of the variant, which scientists say is significantly more contagious.

The virus has also exploded across the US, the country hit hardest by Covid-19. President-elect Joe Biden publicly received his second dose of the jab.

German company BioNTech said it could produce millions more doses of its coronavirus vaccine than originally expected this year, boosting production forecast from 1.3 billion to 2 billion.

The announcement by BioNTech, which worked with US company Pfizer to produce the first vaccine approved in the West, was a boost to countries struggling to obtain sufficient supplies. But the company said Covid-19 would probably become endemic and new vaccines would be needed to maintain immunity, which wanes over time, as well as fight new variants of the virus.

On Monday, the WHO’s chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, said it would take time to produce and administer enough vaccine doses to subdue the virus.

“We are not going to achieve any levels of population immunity or herd immunity in 2021,” Dr Swaminathan said.

She stressing the continuing need to maintain physical distancing, wash hands and wear masks, even among people who have been immunised.

Britain, the first place to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, opened seven mass vaccination sites across England on Monday.

“The next few weeks are going to be the worst weeks of this pandemic in terms of numbers into the NHS,” the UK’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, told the BBC.

“What we need to do, before the vaccines have had their effect ... is we need to really double down” on observing lockdown measures.

India, with the world’s second-biggest virus caseload, will begin immunising its 1.3 billion people on Saturday.

Russian officials on Monday said they would test a one-dose version of the country’s Sputnik V vaccine, to provide a stopgap solution for badly hit countries.

South Africa shut land borders for a month to counter a resurgence in cases fuelled by a new virus strain.

Restrictions already in place, including an overnight curfew and a ban on alcohol sales, remain in force.

Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa said on Monday that a new lockdown was unavoidable. The country has suffered record virus deaths and infections.

“We are certainly facing a third wave,” Mr Costa said.

Lebanon tightened its virus restrictions, imposing an 11-day total lockdown and new travel restrictions.

A team of 10 scientists from the WHO were preparing for a mission to China on Thursday to investigate the origins of the disease.

It will “conduct joint research co-operation on the origins of Covid-19 with Chinese scientists”, the country’s National Health Commission said.

The US and Australia have led international calls for an independent inquiry, angering Beijing.

In Wuhan, the anniversary of the first reported death, on Monday, passed by unmarked.

Commuters moved freely to work, and parks and riverside promenades buzzed with visitors.

“Wuhan is the safest city in China now, even the whole world,” resident Xiong Liansheng, 66, told AFP.