Vials with a sticker reading, "COVID-19 / Coronavirus vaccine / Injection only" and a medical syringe are seen in front of a displayed Pfizer logo in this illustration taken 31 October 2020
Vials with a sticker reading, "COVID-19 / Coronavirus vaccine / Injection only" and a medical syringe are seen in front of a displayed Pfizer logo in this illustration taken 31 October 2020Reuters

Pharma giant Pfizer on Wednesday boosted hopes of a possible end to the coronavirus pandemic by announcing improved results for its vaccine, even as the death rate in Europe surged and protests against restrictions turned violent.

Pfizer said a completed study of its experimental COVID-19 vaccine showed it was 95 per cent effective, offering relief in parts of the world struggling to cope with a second wave.

“With hundreds of thousands of people around the globe infected every day, we urgently need to get a safe and effective vaccine to the world,” Pfizer’s chief executive Albert Bourla said.

The announcement came after another US firm involved in the vaccine race, Moderna, said this week that its own candidate was 94.5 per cent effective, while Russia has also announced a vaccine it claims is more than 90 per cent effective.

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Stock markets mostly rose after the news from Pfizer but optimism was tempered by concern that US lawmakers are not doing enough to agree on a new much-needed stimulus for the world’s top economy.

The EU is also struggling to adopt its 1.8-trillion-euro budget and coronavirus recovery plan, with Poland and Hungary vetoing approval ahead of a summit on Thursday.

Deaths rise 18 per cent

Europe remains the hardest-hit region, accounting for 46 per cent of new global cases and 49 per cent of deaths last week, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

While infection rates in Europe have slowed, the WHO on Wednesday said the death rate went up by 18 per cent last week from the previous week.

The figures showed the only region where cases and deaths declined last week was Southeast Asia.

Worldwide, more than 1.3 million people have died of COVID-19 and over 55 million have been infected with the virus since it first surfaced in China late last year, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP.

In Switzerland, one of the worst-hit countries in Europe, a medical association has warned that intensive care units are becoming saturated.

“Swiss intensive care units are at the limit of their regular bed capacity,” the Swiss Society for Intensive Care Medicine (SSMI) said.

It said the 876 ICU beds for adults that it certifies across the wealthy Alpine nation “are practically all full”.

More beds have meanwhile been added, and the Swiss military has been called in to support efforts in several cantons.

Water cannon fired in Berlin

Many parts of Europe have imposed heavy restrictions on daily life in attempts to curb the spread of the virus.

In Hungary, a state of emergency that enables partial lockdown measures has now been extended until February.

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Germany has also tightened restrictions this month, prompting a series of protests.

Police in Berlin fired water cannon on Wednesday to disperse thousands of unmasked protesters.

The protesters, who have equated the restrictions to Nazi-era rules, responded by chanting “Shame! Shame!” near the iconic Brandenburg Gate in the city centre.

The protest came a day after clashes with police at a similar demonstration in the Slovak capital Bratislava attended by thousands of far-right supporters, including one elderly lady who wore a mask in the colours of the Soviet flag.

‘Going in the right direction’

There was more encouraging news out of Belgium, which has had one of the highest death rates in Europe since the start of the pandemic.

Health authorities in Belgium, home to EU institutions and located in a busy intersection of European travel, said a month-long semi-lockdown was beginning to work.

“For the first time in weeks, or even for several months, all indicators are going in the right direction, meaning they are all going down: the number of infections, hospitalisations and -- for the first time -- the number of deaths,” said a COVID-19 Crisis Centre spokesman, Yves Van Laethem.

While less affected, other parts of the world have continued to feel the impact of the virus.

South Australia announced a six-day “circuit-breaker” lockdown for its nearly two million people Wednesday to contain an outbreak that ended a months-long streak of no infections.

Schools, shops, pubs, factories and even takeaway restaurants were told to close and stay-at-home orders were issued for residents.

‘Missing the fans’

Meanwhile global hopes for a return to normality next year extended into the world of cricket, whose schedule has been badly hit this year along with that of many other sports.

The England and Wales Cricket Board said it hoped spectators could return to matches as they announced a full programme for 2021 culminating with a five-Test series at home to India.

England all-rounder Moeen Ali, speaking via conference call from Cape Town, welcomed the news by saying: “I think the most important thing for us is to play in front of crowds.

“If the fans could come in next year that would be amazing. I think players all over the world are missing the fans a lot.”