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International experts on Wednesday inspected a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan that some US officials had suggested was the source of the coronavirus, as plans were firmed up to distribute vaccines to poorer nations.

The World Health Organization-backed Covax scheme said it would roll out tens of millions of doses to lower-income countries in the next few months, with India the biggest beneficiary, getting 97.2 million of the initial doses.

And there was more positive news on vaccines, seen as a vital tool to overcoming a pandemic that has killed more than 2.2 million since it emerged in China in late 2019.

On Wednesday, drug firm GlaxoSmithKline said it was teaming up with German biotech firm CureVac to develop a new vaccine and Russia said it was looking to ramp up production of its Sputnik V jab.

Click on the link at the top of the story to see a live version of virus information. Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering produced this website, which displays statistics about deaths and confirmed cases of the coronavirus, or Covid-19. Image: Johns Hopkins

The Lancet medical journal reviewed Russian data from its tests and found Sputnik V to be 91.6% effective.

Britain, meanwhile, said farewell to centenarian Captain Tom Moore, the World War II veteran who won hearts by raising millions for health charities during last year’s first UK lockdown, before dying of the virus this week.

“He gave us a real lift, encouraged people to chat to each other and gave us something to talk about,” said his neighbor Lucy Handley.

‘Frank, open discussion’

China has been widely criticized for seeking to cover up the emergence of the virus and for blocking WHO efforts to investigate its origins.

A WHO team finally started work on its investigation in recent days after months of delays, with the experts visiting the Wuhan Institute of Virology on Wednesday.

Former US President Donald Trump and officials in his administration last year promoted a theory – providing no evidence – that the virus had somehow leaked from the lab.

Peter Daszak, one of the experts, tweeted that the team had an “extremely important meeting today with staff” and a “frank, open discussion.” 

Nevertheless, top WHO officials have played down the chances of finding definitive answers on the trip.

Silence for Moore

The positive data from Russia’s vaccine has prompted European countries including Spain and Germany to say they would be open to using it, should it be approved by the European Union.

The Sputnik V jab has already been rolled out in several countries and EU member Hungary has agreed to buy millions of doses – despite it not being approved for use in the bloc.

But in Britain, a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson dodged questions on Sputnik V, despite having been quick to hail the success of rival jabs.

His attention was focused on paying tribute to Captain Moore, who died on Tuesday months after he earned affection and admiration for his fundraising exploits.

Parliament held a minute’s silence Wednesday for Moore, who raised nearly £33 million (US$45 million) for UK health service charities by completing 100 lengths of his garden before his 100th birthday last April.

‘Quasi-ineffective’

EU countries are embroiled in a bitter row with drug firm AstraZeneca over its jab – firstly over its reduced availability, and now over its efficacy in older people.

Although Europe’s regulator has recommended the jab for adults of all ages last week, countries including Belgium, France, Germany and Italy have advised against administering it to older people.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron said last week the jab was “quasi-ineffective” for older people, though when challenged he admitted he had no evidence for the claim.

Health experts said that such claims could increase vaccine skepticism and harm public health.

“This can only be negative on the vaccine takeup in France, in Germany and others,” said Kent Woods, a former chief of both the UK and EU medicines regulators.

The French government has drawn sharp criticism over an inoculation drive that has started slowly.

France has so far failed in its efforts to develop its own vaccine, and is now gearing up its factories to produce other drugs.

The disruption brought by the pandemic to sport and the economy continued with preparations for the Australian Open tennis tournament once again in tatters as up to 600 players and officials were told to isolate and get tested after a hotel worker contracted the virus.

A travel industry group, meanwhile, said global air passenger traffic had plunged by 66% in 2020. 

But there was better news for a niche sector of the global economy – sex toys, with some manufacturers saying they had had a bumper year and customers saying the lockdown had encouraged them to try new things.

“I knew it was the right time,” said a 29-year-old singleton in Paris, saying she overcame her “psychological barrier” during the first lockdown last March. 

“We were entering a crazy period during which I was going to be cut off from all social contact and my love life.” 

AFP