Austrian, Danish leaders to visit Israel for talks on joint vaccine efforts

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen are expected to visit Israel next week for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyau on cooperation on the procurement and development of coronavirus vaccines.

Kurz made the announcement Saturday on Twitter, saying the three countries “have been in close contact” since last spring when the spread of COVID-19 began accelerating all over the world, and now “want to expand the cooperation.”

The Austrian leader, a close ally of Netanyahu, said he wanted to “arrange the closest possible cooperation in the research and production of vaccines.” Austria’s first priority is to “accelerate the production and procurement of vaccines for the future.”

Kurz estimated that Austria will “return to normal in the summer” but the pandemic will linger on, specifically with mutations that may require further vaccines and treatments.

“We have to prepare for this and for the phase after the summer,” he wrote.

Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen arrives for an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020 (Yves Herman, Pool via AP)

Kurz and Frederiksen are set to arrive on Thursday. It is not clear how long they will stay.

The CEO of Pfizer, Albert Bourla, is also expected to visit Israel in March, according to a Channel 12 report last week.

The trip will come as the delivery of 10 million Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine doses to Israel is set to be completed. Bourla may bring additional vaccines, the report said.

Bourla’s visit will also come several weeks before Israel’s March 23 elections, amid Netanyahu’s efforts to make Israel’s vaccination success a centerpiece of his campaign. The PM has often touted his personal rapport with Bourla, the son of Holocaust survivors.

Pfizer and BioNTech announced this week that they are studying adding a third dose to their vaccine regime and testing a new version targeting the South African variant of the coronavirus.

As countries around the world rush to vaccinate people, concerns have risen that more transmissible variants such as the one first detected in South Africa or another in Britain are more resistant to existing vaccines.

In one study, the US and German pharmaceutical firms said they would look at what happens when people are given a third dose of their two-shot vaccine, six to 12 months after the booster.

Bourla told NBC News on Thursday: “We believe that the third dose will raise the antibody response 10- to 20-fold.”

In this Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019 file photo, Albert Bourla, chief executive officer of Pfizer, prepares to testify before the Senate Finance Committee hearing on drug prices, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The companies said in a statement they are also talking to regulators about testing a modified version of their original vaccine to address the South African variant known as B.1.351.

The South African variant is considered among the more dangerous of current mutations because it evades some of the blocking action of antibodies that target older coronavirus strains.

That means people who were infected with the classic strain are more susceptible to reinfection, and research has also shown the variant has partly reduced the protection of the current generation of vaccines.

Bourla told NBC he believed COVID-19 vaccination would become a standard yearly affair to tackle the latest variants.

Also this week, Israel halted a plan touted by Netanyahu to ship surplus coronavirus vaccines to a group of friendly nations as authorities examine whether it was in the premier’s authority to order the move.

The plan reportedly would have seen up to 100,000 vaccine doses sent to numerous countries.

The saga had raised questions at home about Netanyahu’s decision-making authority as well as his move to help far-flung nations in Africa and Latin America at a time when the neighboring Palestinian territories are struggling to secure their own vaccine supplies. The plan has also illustrated how at a time of global shortages, the vaccine has become an asset that can be used for diplomatic gain.

Vials of coronavirus vaccine at a Clalit vaccination center in the northern city of Safed, on February 22, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Despite the freeze, one delivery had already landed in Honduras, the country’s President Juan Orlando Hernandez announced, saying the doses will go to frontline workers. The Czech Republic said Tuesday that it received 5,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine from the Jewish state.

According to Hebrew media reports, the countries Israel was planning to provide with vaccines included Cyprus, Hungary, Guatemala, Maldives, Ethiopia, Chad, Kenya, Uganda and Guinea. Another country was Mauritania, which has no diplomatic ties with Israel. US officials told The Times of Israel last month that Mauritania was close to normalizing relations with Israel before former US president Donald Trump’s term ended.

Each country was to receive between 1,000 and 5,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine, according to the plan.

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