About 20 African migrants were found dead Thursday after their smuggling boat, which was trying to reach Europe, sank in the Mediterranean Sea, Tunisian authorities said. Five survivors were rescued and the Tunisian navy is searching for up to 20 others still believed missing, reports AP.
Tunisian coast guard boats and local fishermen found the bodies off the coastal city of Sfax in central Tunisia, Defense Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ben Zekri told The Associated Press.
According to the survivors, the migrant smuggling boat was carrying about 40 or 50 people heading toward Italy, Ben Zekri said.
The boat was overloaded and in poor condition, and faced strong winds Thursday morning that may have contributed to the sinking, said National Guard spokesman Ali Ayari. It was carrying migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, he told The AP.
Also read: 56,800 migrants dead and missing in 4 years
Tunisian navy units were on the scene to search for any more survivors.
Tunisian authorities say they have intercepted several migrant smuggling boats recently but that the number of attempts has been growing, notably between the Sfax region and the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Migrant smuggling boats frequently leave from the coast of Tunisia and neighboring Libya carrying people from across Africa, including a growing number of Tunisians fleeing prolonged economic difficulties in their country.
Tunisians have made up the vast majority of migrants arriving in Italy this year, despite efforts by Rome to negotiate with Tunis to put a stop to the crossings. Of the 34,001 migrants who had arrived in Italy so far this year, 12,847 were Tunisian, or 38%. Bangladeshis were the next biggest group, followed by those from Ivory Coast, Algeria, Pakistan and Egypt.
Stranded Europe-bound truckers hoped Tuesday to receive the green light to get out of Britain soon, after some of the most dramatic travel restrictions of the pandemic were imposed on the country following the discovery of a potentially more contagious strain of the coronavirus.
More than 1,500 trucks snaked along a major highway in southeast England near the country’s vital Channel ports or crowded into a disused airport, illustrating the scale of Britain’s isolation after countries from Canada to India banned flights from the U.K. and France barred the entry of its trucks for 48 hours beginning Sunday night, reports AP.
For a country of islands that relies heavily on its commercial links with France, that’s potentially very serious — and raised concerns of food shortages if the restrictions weren’t lifted by Wednesday.
Hopes increased over Tuesday that the stranded drivers may soon be able to get on the road again as the European Union’s executive arm pushed for a coordinated response to the travel restrictions on the U.K. The European Commission said people returning to their home countries or main places of residence should be able to do so provided they test negative test for the virus or quarantine.
Though Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said EU countries should work together to “discourage nonessential travel” between the bloc and Britain, he said “blanket travel bans should not prevent thousands of EU and U.K. citizens from returning to their homes.”
The commission added that “cargo flows need to continue uninterrupted.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel told BBC radio that the British government is “speaking constantly” with France to get freight moving again. France has said it wants to lift the ban as soon as possible and is looking at ways of testing drivers on their arrival.
While the French ban does not prevent trucks from entering Britain, many vehicles that carry cargo from the country to the continent return laden with goods. The fear is that will fall off — reducing deliveries to Britain at a time of year when the U.K. produces very little of its food and relies heavily on produce brought from Europe by truck.
Also, some drivers or their employers might decide against entering Britain for fear they won’t be able to get back home.
Also read: UK’s Covid-19 cases reach 390,358
The restrictions were creating a feeling of isolation in Britain akin to what the residents of Hubei province in China at the start of the year or those in northern Italy must have experienced a few months later.
Given that around 10,000 trucks pass through the Dover every day, accounting for about 20% of the country’s trade in goods, retailers are getting increasingly concerned if there is no resolution soon.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, warned of potential shortages of food like lettuce, vegetables and fresh fruit after Christmas if the borders are not “running pretty much freely” from Wednesday.
The problem, he explained, is the empty trucks sitting in England can’t get pick up new deliveries for Britain.
“They need to get back to places like Spain to pick up the next consignment of raspberries and strawberries, and they need to get back within the next day or so, otherwise we will see disruption,” he said.
Over the weekend, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed strict lockdown measures in London and neighboring areas amid mounting concerns over the new variant to the virus, which early indications show might be 70% more transmissible.
As a result, Johnson scrapped a planned relaxation of rules over Christmastime for millions of people and banned indoor mixing of households. Only essential travel will be permitted.
Amid questions about whether vaccines being rolled out now would work against the new strain, the chief executive of BioNTech — the German pharmaceutical company behind one of those shots — said he was confident it would be effective, but further studies are need to be completely sure.
Ugur Sahin said Tuesday that “we don’t know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant” but because the proteins on the variant are 99% the same as the prevailing strains BioNTech has “scientific confidence” in the vaccine.
Also read: Covid-19: Global cases surpass 77 million
There are mounting concerns that the whole of the U.K. will be put into a national lockdown after Christmas as new infections soar, including in Wales where 90 soldiers from the British Army will be reenlisted to drive vehicles from Wednesday to support health teams responding to emergency calls.
The British government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, warned Monday that measures “may need to be increased in some places, in due course, not reduced.” For many, that was code for another national lockdown.
While the new variant is being assessed, countries were trying to limit contact with Britain, even though there is evidence of the strain elsewhere already.
In Switzerland, for example, authorities are trying to track an estimated 10,000 people who have arrived by plane from Britain since Dec. 14 — and has ordered them to quarantine for 10 days.
Switzerland was one of the 40-odd countries to ban flights from the U.K. over concerns about the new variant.
The quarantine order is likely to affect thousands of Brits who may have already headed to Swiss ski resorts. Unlike many of its neighbors, Switzerland has left most of its slopes open, attracting enthusiasts from around Europe.
The virus is blamed for 1.7 million deaths worldwide, including about 68,000 in Britain, the second-highest death toll in Europe, behind Italy’s 69,000.
The chaos at the border comes at a time of huge uncertainty for Britain, less than two weeks before it completes its exit from the EU and frees itself from the bloc’s rules. Talks on a post-Brexit trade relationship between the two sides are deadlocked.
The European Medicines Agency recommended conditional approval for a coronavirus vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer to be used across the European Union, weeks after the shot was first granted permission under emergency provisions in Britain and the United States.
Following a closed-doors expert meeting Monday, the EU drug regulator said it was recommending the shot be licensed for use in people over 16 years of age, with some exceptions. The pharmaceutical companies will need to submit follow-up data on their vaccine for the next year.
“This is really a historic scientific achievement," said Emer Cooke, the head of the agency. “It is a significant step forward in our fight against the pandemic.”
The approval needs to be rubber-stamped by the EU's executive branch on Monday evening. a move its chief said is likely to happen Monday evening.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that the EMA's approval was “a decisive moment in our efforts to deliver safe & effective vaccines to Europeans!”
“Now we will act fast. I expect a @EU_Commission decision by this evening,” she said. The EU’s executive arm had been expected to require two or three days to approve the EMA’s decision.
Authorities in Germany and several other European countries have said they hope to begin vaccinating people on Dec 27.
“Today is a particularly personal and emotional day for us at BioNTech,” said Ugur Sahin, the company’s chief executive and co-founder. “Being in the heart of the EU, we are thrilled to be one step closer to potentially delivering the first vaccine in Europe to help combat this devastating pandemic.”
“We are standing by ready to start the delivery of initial vaccine doses across the EU as soon as we get the green light,” Sahin said.
The European regulator came under heavy pressure last week from countries calling for the vaccine to be granted approval for use as quickly as possible. EMA originally set Dec 29 as the date for its evaluation of the vaccine made by Germany-based BioNTech, but moved up the meeting to Monday after calls from the German government and other countries for the agency to move more quickly.
The European Medicines Agency met Monday to consider approving a coronavirus vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer that would be the first to be authorised for use in the European Union. AP Photo
The vaccine has already been given some form of regulatory authorization in at least 15 countries.
Britain, Canada and the US authorised the vaccine to be used according to emergency provisions, meaning the shot is an unlicensed product whose temporary use is justified by the pandemic that has killed almost 1.7 million people worldwide to date, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
Switzerland became the first country Saturday to authorize the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine according to the normal licensing procedure. EMA approval also follows the regular process, only on an accelerated schedule and under the condition that the pharmaceutical companies submit follow-up data on their vaccine for the next year.
In a statement last week that appeared to address concerns by some in Europe about the speed of the process, the agency stressed that the vaccine would only be approved after a scientific assessment showed its overall benefits outweighed the risks.
Also Read- Europe an epicenter of COVID-19 right now
“A vaccine’s benefits in protecting people against COVID-19 must be far greater than any side effect or potential risks,” it said.
Scientists are still waiting for more long-term follow-up data to see how long immunity from the vaccines lasts and if there are any rare or serious side effects. Final testing of the vaccine is still ongoing; more information on whether the shot works in children is needed, in addition to its effects in pregnant women.
The vaccine is not made with the coronavirus itself, meaning there’s no chance anyone could catch it from the shots. Instead, the vaccine contains a piece of genetic code that trains the immune system to recognize the spiked protein on the surface of the virus.
On the day Britain began its vaccination campaign, authorities warned people with severe allergies not to get the shot after two people suffered serious allergic reactions; it’s unclear if the reactions were caused by the immunisation.
A man walks past a closed shop on Regent Street in central in London, Sunday, Dec 20, 2020. AP photo
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that as of Friday they had seen six cases of severe allergic reaction out of more than a quarter-million shots of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine given, including in one person with a history of vaccination reactions.
BioNTech and Pfizer offered the EU 400 million doses of the vaccine, but the bloc's executive Commission chose to buy only 200 million doses, with an option for 100 million more.
The EMA plans to hold a meeting on Jan 12 to decide if the coronavirus vaccine made by Moderna should be licensed. It has reviews ongoing for a shot developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca and another from Janssen, but neither of those have made a formal request for the EMA to approve their vaccine.
A growing list of European Union nations and Canada barred travel from the U.K. on Sunday and others were considering similar action, in a bid to prevent a new strain of coronavirus sweeping across southern England from spreading to the continent.
France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Ireland and Bulgaria all announced restrictions on U.K. travel, hours after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that Christmas shopping and gatherings in southern England must be canceled because of rapidly spreading infections blamed on the new coronavirus variant.
Johnson immediately placed those regions under a strict new Tier 4 restriction level, upending Christmas plans for millions.
Also read: Global Covid-19 cases surpass 76.2 million
France banned all travel from the U.K. for 48 hours from midnight Sunday, including trucks carrying freight through the tunnel under the English Channel or from the port of Dover on England's south coast. French officials said the pause would buy time to find a “common doctrine” on how to deal with the threat, but it threw the busy cross-channel route used by thousands of trucks a day into chaos.
The Port of Dover tweeted Sunday night that its ferry terminal was “closed to all accompanied traffic leaving the UK until further notice due to border restrictions in France.”
Eurostar passenger trains from London to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam were also halted.
Germany said all flights coming from Britain, except cargo flights, were no longer allowed to land starting midnight Sunday. It didn’t immediately say how long the flight ban would last. Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said he was issuing a flight ban for 24 hours starting at midnight “out of precaution.” “There are a great many questions about this new mutation,” he said, adding he hoped to have more clarity by Tuesday.
Canada announced its own ban Sunday night. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement that for 72 hours starting at midnight Sunday, “all flights from the UK will be prohibited from entering Canada.” He added that travelers who arrived Sunday would be subject to secondary screening and other health measures. A follow-up statement from the government said cargo flights were not included in the ban.
The British government said Johnson would preside at a meeting of the government's crisis committee, COBRA, on Monday in the wake of the other nations' measures. They come at a time of huge economic uncertainty for the U.K., less than two weeks before it leaves the EU's economic structures Dec. 31, and with talks on a new post-Brexit trade relationship still deadlocked.
Johnson said Saturday that a fast-moving new variant of the virus that is 70% more transmissible than existing strains appeared to be driving the rapid spread of new infections in London and southern England in recent weeks. But he stressed “there’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,” or that vaccines will be less effective against it.
On Sunday, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock added to the alarm when he said “the new variant is out of control.” The U.K. recorded 35,928 further confirmed cases, around double the number from a week ago.
The Netherlands banned flights from the U.K. for at least the rest of the year. Ireland issued a 48-hour flight ban. Italy said it would block flights from the U.K. until Jan.6, and an order signed Sunday prohibits entry into Italy by anyone who has been in the U.K. in the last 14 days.
The World Health Organization tweeted late Saturday that it was "in close contact with U.K. officials on the new #COVID19 virus variant" and promised to update governments and the public as more is learned.
The new strain was identified in southeastern England in September and has been spreading in the area ever since, a WHO official told the BBC on Sunday.
Viruses mutate regularly, and scientists have found thousands of different mutations among samples of the virus causing COVID-19. Many of these changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads or how severe symptoms are.
British health authorities said that while the variant has been circulating since September, it wasn’t until the last week that officials felt they had enough evidence to declare that it has higher transmissibility than other circulating coronaviruses.
Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, said officials are concerned about the new variant because it contained 23 different changes, “an unusually large number of variants” affecting how the virus binds to and enters cells in the body.
Officials aren't certain whether it originated in the U.K., Vallance added. But by December, he said it was causing over 60% of infections in London.
The annual Berlin International Film Festival is being put off this year due to the coronavirus pandemic and split into two parts later in 2021, organizers said Friday.
The “Berlinale” had been scheduled for February in the German capital but cannot go ahead due to the likelihood that coronavirus restrictions on large gatherings will continue, organizers said, reports AP.
To give the film industry a venue to market their products in the first quarter, however, a virtual Berlinale will be held online in March. Then in June, organizers are scheduling a summer event with numerous film screenings for the public in theaters and the open air.
“The division makes it possible to maintain the two supporting pillars: film market and festival,” organizers said.