Pfizer strikes deal for Covid pill; Ukraine reports record-high virus deaths; Munich cancels Christmas market over Covid surge

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Munich, Germany: Munich on Tuesday became the first major German city to cancel its upcoming Christmas market, which usually draws some three million visitors, blaming the “dramatic” coronavirus resurgence.

Munich mayor Dieter Reiter called it “bitter news” for the city’s residents and stallholders, but said it would be irresponsible for the event to go ahead.

“The dramatic situation in our hospitals and the exponentially increasing infection figures leave me no other choice: unfortunately, the Munich Christmas market cannot take place this year,” Reiter said in a statement.

Many German Christmas markets were called off in 2020 because of the pandemic, but Munich “Christ Child Market” is the first of the larger, more popular ones to be axed this year. It was due to open on November 22.

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Munich is located in Germany’s southern Bavaria region, which is grappling with one of the country’s highest infection rates amid a ferocious fourth wave of the pandemic.

Bavaria had a weekly incidence rate of 554.2 recorded infections per 100,000 people on Tuesday, according to the Robert Koch Institute, well above the nationwide figure of 312.4 — an all-time high for the country.

Germany hosts some 2,500 Christmas markets each year that are popular with visitors who come to savour mulled wine and roasted chestnuts, and shop for seasonal trinkets among clusters of wooden chalets.

In pre-pandemic times, they drew about 160 million domestic and international visitors annually who brought in revenues of three to five billion euros ($3.6-5.9 billion), according to the BSM stallkeepers’ industry association.

Eyes are now turning to cities such as Cologne, Stuttgart, Nuremberg and Dresden, which are in the midst of preparing their own popular Christmas markets. Several smaller markets have already been cancelled across Germany, but so far many organisers have said they plan to forge ahead.

Some plan to impose stricter rules barring access to the unvaccinated, while other cities will demand proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test before allowing visitors into the Christmas market zones.

Meanwhile, US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer on Tuesday announced a deal to make its oral antiviral Covid-19 medication available more cheaply in poorer countries, if the promising pill passes trials and regulatory approval.

Pfizer, which also produces a Covid vaccine with German lab BioNTech, said it had signed an agreement to sub-licence production of its Paxlovid pill to generic drug manufacturers, without receiving royalties.

The deal with the global Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) would therefore make the candidate drug available at a lower cost in 95 low- and middle-income countries covering around 53 percent of the world’s population.

It follows a similar deal for US rival Merck & Co last month. The drug is to be taken with the HIV medicine ritonavir. Interim data from ongoing trials demonstrated an 89 percent reduction in the risk of Covid-19-related hospitalisation or death compared to a placebo, in non-hospitalised high-risk adults with Covid-19 within three days of symptom onset, said Pfizer.

Similar results were seen within five days of symptom onset, it added. The Geneva-based MPP is a United Nations-backed international organisation that works to facilitate the development of medicines for low- and middle-income nations.

MPP executive director Charles Gore said: “This license is so important because if authorised or approved, this oral drug is particularly well-suited for low- and middle-income countries and could play a critical role in saving lives.”

The drug “is to be taken together with ritonavir, an HIV medicine we know well, as we have had a license on it for many years, and we will be working with generic companies to ensure there is enough supply for both Covid-19 and HIV.”

Pfizer will forego royalties on sales in all countries covered by the agreement while Covid-19 remains classified as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organisation.

Last month, the WHO maintained the highest level of alert over the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19. Paxlovid, or PF-07321332, is an investigational antiviral therapy designed to block the activity of the SARS-CoV-2-3CL protease — an enzyme that the coronavirus needs to replicate.

Taking it together with a low dose of ritonavir helps slow the breakdown of PF-07321332. It therefore remains active in the body for a longer period at a high concentration, to help combat the virus.

If taken at the first sign of infection or exposure to Covid-19, the pill could potentially help patients avoid severe illness, which can lead to hospitalisation and death, Pfizer said. In a related development, Ukraine on Tuesday reported the highest single-day death toll of 838 from Covid-19, bringing the total number of fatalities from the disease to 77,985, according to the Ukrainian Health Ministry.

The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the Eastern European country has increased by 16,308 in the past 24 hours, while 2,264 people have been hospitalised. Ukraine has suffered a surge in daily Covid-19 deaths since mid-October due to the relatively slow vaccination pace, one of the slowest in Europe. As of Tuesday, some 8.88 million people in the country with a population of some 42 million have been fully vaccinated.

To boost the Covid-19 vaccination drive, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday announced that his government will spend some 6 billion hryvnyas (about 227 million US dollars) on cash incentives for those who get fully immunised against the novel coronavirus.

Meantime, new measures to fight the spread of Covid-19 on public transport and in taxis came into force in Italy on Tuesday, as authorities attempt to contain a fourth wave of infections. Under the new rules, which were signed off in a decree issued by health and transport ministers on Monday, all passengers will have to show their “green pass” before boarding long-distance and inter-regional trains.

The green pass is a certificate showing that a person is either fully immunized or has received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, has recovered from the disease or tested negative in the last 48 hours.

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