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ISRAEL

Israel, Denmark, Austria agree deal for vaccine development

Leaders from Israel, Austria and Denmark announced Thursday in Jerusalem an alliance for the development and production of future generation coronavirus vaccines, a deal that has already sparked criticism in Europe.

Israel, Denmark, Austria agree deal for vaccine development
Photo: Olivier Fitoussi/AFP/Ritzau Scanpix

The three countries will launch “a research and development fund” and begin “joint efforts for common production of future vaccines”, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a news conference alongside his Danish counterpart Mette Frederiksen and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

“We don’t know how long… (current coronavirus) vaccines will hold up,” Netanyahu added.

“Is it half a year, is it a year, is it two years, is it more, is it less? We don’t know. Therefore we have to protect our people against the reemergence of this pandemic, or mutations.”

He did not specify the fund amount or the production capacity goal.

Frederiksen said the three countries “all have promising research that could pave the way for a next generation platform”, adding they “would like also to explore possible cooperation on clinical trials”.

Denmark and Austria are European Union members, and the Israeli partnership has elicited criticism from fellow EU state France, which said the European framework remained the best way to guarantee “solidarity” within the bloc.

Kurz had announced the alliance on Monday, saying the European Medicines Agency (EMA) was “too slow in approving vaccines”, leaving the bloc vulnerable to supply bottlenecks at pharmaceutical companies.

But France defended the agency and insisted that “the most effective solution for meeting our vaccination needs must remain within a European framework”.

“This is what guarantees the solidarity among member states that is more essential than ever,” it said late Wednesday.

But Kurz on Thursday said: “We need to cooperate on this issue within the European Union… but we also need to cooperate worldwide.”

He added that “Israel is the first country in the world to show that it is possible to defeat the virus”.

Israel, among the world leaders in Covid-19 vaccinations per capita, launched a massive inoculation drive in December, backed by a deal with US pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer, which mounted an airlift of its vaccine developed with German firm BioNTech in exchange for data on its effects.

The Jewish state has so far administered at least one of two recommended doses to more than half its nine million-strong population, and led a series of large-scale trials that have so far confirmed the efficacy of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

The rapid rollout has allowed for shops to re-open and activities in public spaces to resume, some of which, such as sports centres, are reserved for people with a “green badge” indicating they’ve had two doses.

Netanyahu, who took his Danish and Austrian guests on a tour of a gym on Thursday, and has opened the door for other countries to also join the alliance. 

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has acknowledged “significant” shortcomings in the EU’s vaccination policies, while criticising what he called “attempts at secession”.

READ ALSO: Austria and Denmark chided by EU ally over Israel vaccine plan

Austria’s neighbours the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia have already bypassed the EMA to approve Russian and Chinese coronavirus vaccines.

The EU has seen a sharp shortfall in the first three months of this year of deliveries it had been counting on to kickstart its vaccine roll-out, with Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca facing fierce criticism from the European Commission for supplying just a fraction of the vaccine doses it had promised to deliver to the bloc.

The European Commission, however, refrained from censuring the Israel-Austria-Denmark alliance.

“We welcome the fact that member states are looking at all possible options to improve the common European response to the to the virus,” said commission spokesman Eric Mamer. 

“For us, there is no contradiction,” he added. 

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COVID-19

Austria in shock over doctor’s suicide following anti-vax abuse

Austrians expressed shock and anger this week over the suicide of doctor who had been the target of a torrent of abuse and threats from anti-vaccination protesters.

Austria in shock over doctor's suicide following anti-vax abuse

The bells of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral rang out in memory of Lisa-Maria Kellermayr on Monday, and hundreds of people held a candle vigil outside, after the 36-year-old doctor was found dead at her practice on July 29.

She had long been the target of death threats because of her criticism of the widespread anti-lockdown protests of 2021.

An autopsy later confirmed that Kellermayr had taken her own life.

Austria has found itself deeply polarised over coronavirus restrictions and in particular a government policy –subsequently dropped — of making vaccination against the coronavirus compulsory.

Kellermayr — whose practice was in the region of Upper Austria where immunisation rates are particularly low — had frequently complained of the menace.

“For more than seven months, we have been receiving… death threats from those opposed to coronavirus measures and vaccinations,” she wrote at the time, sharing a message from one internet user who said they would pose as a patient in order to attack her and her staff.

She described how she had “invested more than 100,000 euros” ($102,000) in measures to ensure her patients’ safety and was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Then, at the end of June, Kellermayr announced on her professional website that she would not be seeing patients until further notice.

Daniel Landau, who organised a memorial vigil for her in Vienna, said that Kellermayr had become a virtual recluse for several weeks. “She didn’t dare to leave” her office, Landau told AFP.

Fanning the aggression

On Saturday, the head of Austria’s doctors’ association, Johannes Steinhart, said that while aggressive behaviour towards medical staff was not new, it had been “fired up and noticeably aggravated” by the debate over Covid-19 and vaccines.

The police, who had previously suggested Kellermayr was exploiting the situation for attention, insist they did everything to protect her. The local prosecutor’s office also rejected suggestions it could have done more.

“As soon as we received the police report (identifying one of the suspects), we sent it over to the relevant authorities in Germany,” spokesman Christoph Weber said.

On Friday, prosecutors in the neighbouring German state of Bavaria said a 59-year-old suspect was being investigated by a specialist hate speech unit.

At the beginning of the week, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen visited the small town of Seewalchen where Kellermayr lived to lay flowers in her memory.

After news of her death broke, he had appealed to Austrians to “put an end to intimidation and fear”.

‘They’re gagging us’

But on some Telegram groups, the hateful messages continue.

“Some people are celebrating her death; others believe the vaccine killed her,” said Ingrid Brodnig, a journalist and author who investigates online disinformation.

“Stricts laws exist” already against online hate, but not enough is done to implement them, Brodnig said.

One government minister has floated the idea of a separate prosecutor’s office to target such cases. Doctors and researchers have also been targeted elsewhere.

French infectious disease specialist, Karine Lacombe, described how she had been vilified for her work as part of a collective of doctors combatting coronavirus-related disinformation.

She, too, complained that the response from the authorities in the face of threats was not robust enough, and has scaled down her public appearances this year.

“You end up thinking that the risk isn’t worth it,” she told AFP. “In that sense (the aggressors) have won, they are gagging us,” she said.

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