UK isolated over coronavirus strain as EU watchdog approves vaccine

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LONDON (AFP) - Countries around the world closed their borders to Britain Monday (Dec 21) in a race to contain a fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus as the European Union neared approval of its first jab for the bloc's vaccination campaign.

Dozens of countries from India to Argentina suspended flights from the UK in fear of the new virus strain, delivering a bleak reminder that the pandemic is far from under control a year after it began even as vaccinations bring a rush of optimism.

European stocks, oil prices and the British pound all plummeted over the developments.

Thousands of people are still dying daily from the virus that has claimed at least 1.69 million lives over the past year since it first emerged in China.

While experts say there is no evidence the UK variant of the virus - one of several mutations - is more lethal or will affect the impact of vaccines, it may be up to 70 per cent more transmissible, according to early data.

The rapid response of flight cancellations upended travel plans around the world just as families were preparing to unite for Christmas.

"Please help us leave!" said one British traveller who was among dozens held overnight in German airports, unable to leave until virus tests come back negative.

Others are now moored in the UK for the foreseeable future.

Beth Gabriel Ware, a Briton who lives in Turkey, flew home earlier this month to surprise her parents in Kent, south-east England - but is now stuck.

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"I hadn't been in the UK for about 10 months, because I was so scared of this happening," she lamented.

EU watchdog approves jab

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was to hold a crisis meeting about the situation Monday, with particular concern about the disruption of goods from France, which imposed a 48-hour blockade on people and lorries crossing the English Channel.

The move came just as companies are racing to shift merchandise before Britain finally quits European Union trade structures after Brexit.

"The absolute key is to get it resolved as soon as possible," transport minister Grant Shapps told Sky News on Monday.

Yet the Netherlands, another key sea route from Europe to Britain, confirmed its freight routes to the UK remained open despite banning all passenger ferries.

The chaos comes as the EU prepared to launch its first inoculation efforts within days after a regulator approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Monday.

"At this moment there is no evidence to suggest this vaccine will not work against the new variant," assured Emer Cooke, chief of the European Medicines Agency.

BioNTech and Pfizer said they were "standing by ready" to deliver their vaccines once the European Commission gives the final nod.

The United States and UK have already approved the jab and administered tens of thousands of shots, while Russia and China have been using their own domestically-produced vaccines.

Multiple variants

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Scientists say the coronavirus has changed into different variants as it has spread around the world.

The UK strain has also been detected in small numbers in Australia, Denmark and the Netherlands, while another variant with similar genetic mutations have been linked to widespread Covid-19 transmission in South Africa, according to the World Health Organization.

There is currently "no evidence to indicate any change in disease severity, but this is also under investigation," WHO said in a statement.

UK scientists first discovered the particularly fast-spreading mutation in a patient in September.

By the week beginning December 9, the new strain was accounting for 60 per cent of cases in London, said Patrick Vallance, the government's chief scientific adviser.

While Russia, Spain, India and others joined the list of countries banning flights from the UK on Monday, Australia and the US have held off.

Americans, still suffering the world's highest death tolls, were bracing for relief after lawmakers reached a deal Sunday on a nearly US$900 billion (S$1.19 trillion) Covid-19 financial package.

The measure, which Congress is expected to approve Monday, would include aid for vaccine distribution and logistics, extra jobless benefits of US$300 per week, and a new round of US$600 stimulus checks.

Wall Street stocks nevertheless opened lower Monday as worries over the UK's virus strain dampened optimism on the stimulus bill.

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