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Britain clears Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine amid major coronavirus spike

A man wearing a mask walks past the London Eye on Friday.
A man wearing a mask walks past the London Eye on the banks of the Thames in London on Friday.
(Frank Augstein / Associated Press)

Britain has given the green light to Moderna’s COVID-19 shot, the third vaccine to be licensed for use in the country as it ramps up a mass-inoculation program amid a major wave of coronavirus infections.

The British Department of Health said Friday that the vaccine meets the regulator’s “strict standards of safety, efficacy and quality.” Britain has now ordered a total of 17 million doses that are to be delivered by spring.

“Vaccines are the key to releasing us all from the grip of this pandemic, and today’s news is yet another important step towards ending lockdown and returning to normal life,’’ Business Secretary Alok Sharma said.

So far, Britain has inoculated 1.5 million people with the Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccines. Its goal is to vaccinate some 15 million people by mid-February.

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Authorization of the Moderna vaccine comes as the need for such help grows. London Mayor Sadiq Khan on Friday declared a “major incident″ — a situation defined as “beyond the scope of business-as-usual operations″ and likely a risk to life and welfare — as the rapid spread of the coronavirus threatens to overwhelm the capital’s hospitals. Other emergency services are also under strain, with hundreds of firefighters now driving ambulances, for example.

“Our heroic doctors, nurses and NHS staff are doing an amazing job,” Khan said, referring to the National Health Service. “But with cases rising so rapidly, our hospitals are at risk of being overwhelmed. The stark reality is that we will run out of beds for patients in the next couple of weeks unless the spread of the virus slows down drastically.’'

British scientists have found a version of the coronavirus with a cluster of genetic changes that make it more transmissible and perhaps more dangerous.

Khan said the city was at a crisis point. Cases now exceed 1,000 per 100,000 people. Most of Britain is already under fairly tight lockdown. Declaring a major incident activates special coordination efforts among various emergency agencies, the mayor’s office said.

“If we do not take immediate action now, our NHS could be overwhelmed, and more people will die,” he said.

NHS England Chief Executive Simon Stevens said Thursday that the pressures facing hospitals in London and the southeast of England are so acute that the capital’s new Nightingale hospital — one of several built last spring as the pandemic hit — will be opened next week. The hospital has not yet been used.

“The entirety of the health service in London is mobilizing to do everything it possibly can, but the infections, the rate of growth in admissions — that is what collectively the country has got to get under control,” Stevens said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that more lockdown restrictions in Britain are likely as the country reels from a new coronavirus strain.

Britain is recording coronavirus-related deaths on a par with some of the worst days early in the pandemic. On Thursday, government figures showed that another 1,162 people were reported to have died within 28 days of testing positive for the virus.

Britain‘s total coronavirus-related death toll is now 78,508. According to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University, the country has registered the most COVID-19 deaths in Europe and the fifth-highest number in the world.


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