Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (L), French President Emmanuel Macron (C) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (L), French President Emmanuel Macron (C) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) look into documents during an EU summit in Brussels on July 20, 2020, as the leaders of the European Union hold their first face-to-face summit over a post-virus economic rescue plan. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: European leaders on Tuesday agreed to a massive aid package for their pandemic-ravaged economies, as regulators said the first vaccine against the coronavirus could be approved this year.

The virus has infected more than 14.7 million people and killed over 610,000 of them since emerging in China late last year, with fresh alarm being sounded over its accelerating spread in Africa.

After a fractious, 90-hour summit, European leaders finally agreed on a rescue package of 750 billion euros ($858 billion) to try and pull their bloc out of a deep recession, AFP reported. The pandemic has devastated the global economy.

“This is a historic change for Europe,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed relief that the EU had, in her eyes, shown itself equal to “the greatest crisis” in its history.

The package will send tens of billions of euros to countries hit hardest by the virus, most notably heavily indebted Spain and Italy who had lobbied hard for a major gesture from their EU partners.

14.7million

people infected by the coronavirus around the world.

The talks saw strong resistance from some nations against sending money to countries they considered too lax with public spending.

There was criticism from others that the compromises made were too great. Teenage climate campaigner Greta Thunberg tweeted her disappointment.

“As expected the #EUCO resulted in some nice words, some vague distant incomplete climate targets nearly impossible to track and a complete denial of the climate emergency,” she wrote.

First vaccine may be approved in 2020: EU regulator

European regulators could approve the first vaccine against COVID-19 this year, after a flurry of trials by drugmakers leading the race showed promising results, Bloomberg reported.

“We are preparing ourselves for that possibility so that we as regulators will be ready,” Marco Cavaleri, head of anti-infectives and vaccines at the European Medicines Agency, said in an interview Tuesday. “It will be a matter of seeing whether this data could be sufficient for allowing any kind of approval by the end of 2020.”

Separately, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s senior medical adviser, Chris Whitty, said there is only a slim chance of an effective vaccine being available by Christmas, even as the University of Oxford reported progress on its initiative.

Bad news in Brazil, Iran

Britain, which left the EU in January and will not benefit from the aid plan signed by European leaders, revealed on Tuesday that state borrowing had rocketed to a record 127.9 billion pounds ($162.5 billion) in the three months to June.

Britain has suffered Europe’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak, with more than 45,000 deaths recorded to date.

And with even richer nations struggling, experts have warned that the impact would be harshest in poorer regions of the world like Africa.

The World Health Organisation sounded the alarm about the situation there, particularly in South Africa, where the death toll crossed 5,000 over the weekend.

“I am very concerned right now that we are beginning to see an acceleration of disease in Africa,” warned the WHO’s emergencies chief Michael Ryan on Monday.

Brazil’s death toll, meanwhile, passed 80,000 late on Monday, according to health ministry figures.

And the Middle East’s worst-hit country Iran on Tuesday recorded a new single-day record death toll of 229.

“This raises the overall toll to 14,634,” said a health ministry spokeswoman.

Trump supports face masks

donald Trump mask
In this file photo taken on July 11, 2020 US President Donald Trump wears a mask as he visits Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Image Credit: AFP

US President Donald Trump tweeted a photo of himself wearing a mask with the message: “We are United in our effort to defeat the Invisible China Virus, and many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance.”

“There is nobody more Patriotic than me, your favourite President!”

US authorities are struggling to handle the crisis as infections surge towards four million, with more than 140,000 deaths.

Just over a hundred days from the November presidential election, Trump is struggling to respond to public anger over his handling of the crisis, with the death toll still rising and the economy devastated.

Tens of millions of Americans have been left jobless, and the extra unemployment benefits keeping some from poverty are set to expire at the end of July.

Hong Kong denies lockdown speculation

Hong Kong’s government said speculation the city would be locked down in coming days was false after reporting 58 additional local cases on Tuesday, 24 of which were of unknown origins. The Asian financial hub has been taken off-guard by the sudden eruption of infections, close to half of which are untraceable, Bloomberg reported.

While other places in the region like Australia are also facing aggressive resurgences, their hospital bed vacancies and testing capabilities appear to outstrip those of Hong Kong’s.

Tokyo to urge residents to stay home over weekend

Social distancing signs Japan restaurant
Social distancing signs are place on a table and chairs at a restaurant in Japan's supermarket group Aeon's shopping mall as the mall reopens amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Chiba, Japan May 28, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike is considering urging residents to avoid unnecessary trips outdoors during a forthcoming four-day weekend, Bloomberg reported. The holiday was originally scheduled to celebrate the start of the Tokyo Olympic Games, now postoponed until 2021.

Daily coronavirus cases in the Japanese capital are back above 200, with 237 cases reported on Tuesday. Tokyo has now seen more than 1,600 infections in the past week, while hospitalisations have risen almost fivefold in the past month.

Vaccine hopes

Two new studies Monday offered some hope of a potential vaccine, however.

One trial among more than 1,000 adults in Britain found that a vaccine induced “strong antibody and T cell immune responses” against the coronavirus.

A separate trial in China involving more than 500 people showed most had developed widespread antibody immune response.

An effective vaccine is considered key for a return to normality, particularly for travel and large religious gatherings like the Hajj.

While many sporting events have resumed, most behind closed doors, others continue to be postponed, most recently cricket’s Twenty20 World Cup which was due to be held in Australia through October and November.

- with inputs from AFP