Biden to offer Covid-weary US vision of almost ‘normal’ July 4th

President Joe Biden will offer his Covid-weary nation a glimpse of an almost normal July 4th in a primetime speech Thursday outlining how the United States is closing in on defeating the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden’s first primetime address as president will outline the White House plan to administer ever growing quantities of vaccines, allowing Americans to safely celebrate their cherished national holiday once again — albeit still in toned-down fashion.

“He’ll put the nation on the path to get closer to normal by July 4th,” a senior administration official, who asked not to be identified, said ahead of the speech, which marks the first anniversary of the beginning of the deadly pandemic.

“The president will talk about small gatherings, like a barbecue in your backyard in your neighborhood. He will be clear that that does not mean large events where lots of people gather, but it does mean that we can once again have an Independence Day,” the official said.

“That’s a big step in the right direction.”

The United States leads the world in Covid-19 deaths, with a toll of more than 530,000. But it is now surging ahead of European countries and Canada with vaccine production and distribution.

Biden’s bid to get the country back on its feet got a huge boost this week when Congress passed his $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package dubbed the American Rescue Plan.

Biden says this will give poorer families a “fighting chance” and help fire up the engines of the world’s biggest economy, something the IMF said Thursday could also help ignite global recovery.

“There is real reason for hope, folks, I promise you,” Biden said in a preview of his remarks. “There is light at the end of the tunnel.”

– AstraZeneca woes –

Several countries suspended the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine on Thursday over blood clot fears, prompting Europe’s medical agency to quickly reassure the public there were no known health risks linked to the jab. 

The melee over the vaccine threatened to dim hopes that inoculations are the ticket to returning to normal life.

The virus has now killed more than 2.6 million people, subjected billions to anti-Covid restrictions, and left the global economy in tatters — an outcome unimaginable at the outset of the crisis.  

A year on, several countries are looking to ramp up vaccine rollouts as a way forward. 

But that momentum hit a snag Thursday as Denmark, Norway and Iceland all suspended use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab over fears it could be linked to blood clots. 

Italy joined them, banning a batch of the vaccine as a precaution, even as its medicines regulator said there was currently no established link with the alleged side-effects. 

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) issued a statement seeking to assuage fears and Britain called the jab “safe and effective.”

French Health Minister Olivier Veran said there was “no need” to suspend use of the vaccine.

– EU approves new jab –

European Union countries are eager to speed up vaccine drives after a slow start left the bloc behind the United States, Israel and Britain — leaders in the race to immunize. 

Any further AstraZeneca suspensions could hamper already slow progress, with the EU under pressure to catch up and populations eager to return to a pre-pandemic reality. 

On Thursday, the EMA approved the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is stored at warmer temperatures than its competitors and is easier to distribute. 

“Authorities across the European Union will have another option to combat the pandemic and protect the lives and health of their citizens,” EMA chief Emer Cooke said in a statement.

Adding to the optimism on Thursday, a real-world study in Israel showed the Pfizer/BioNTech jabs to be 97 percent effective against symptomatic Covid cases, higher than originally thought.

– ‘War footing’ –  

Since first emerging in China at the end of 2019, the coronavirus has infected more than 118 million people, with few parts of the globe left untouched. 

The WHO officially declared Covid-19 a pandemic on March 11 last year as infection numbers were beginning to explode across Asia and Europe.

The only defenses to the contagious virus then appeared to be face masks and stopping people from interacting.

Global aviation came to a near-standstill and governments imposed deeply unpopular restrictions, forcing billions of fearful people into some form of lockdown.

“We are on a war footing,” Corinne Krencker, the head of a hospital network in eastern France told AFP on March 11 last year, as patient and death numbers began to surge.

Today, more than 300 million vaccine doses have been administered in 140 countries, according to an AFP tally.

Now, governments have started to cautiously roll back measures put in place over what turned out to be a deadly winter in many spots. 

Greece hopes to reopen for tourists in mid-May, a government official said Thursday. France said it would ease travel restrictions from seven countries including Britain.

And the sports world — after a year of cancelled or mainly spectator-less matches — also looked to a return to normal thanks to more jabs. 

The International Olympic Committee said athletes at the Tokyo Games and the 2022 Beijing Winter Games would be offered vaccines bought from China.

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