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Britain on Wednesday became the first western country to approve a Covid-19 vaccine for general use, while Japan and Italy pledged free inoculations for all even as the global death toll rose towards 1.5 million.

Just 12 months after the pandemic broke out in China, the UK's independent medicines regulator gave a green light to the BioNTech-Pfizer drug in double-quick time but insisted safety had come first.

"Everybody can be confident that no corners whatsoever have been cut," said Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) chief executive June Raine. "The public deserve nothing less."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the move heralded a vaccination programme "that will ultimately allow us to reclaim our lives and get the economy moving again".

His government said some 800,000 doses would be administered from as soon as next week.

With over 59,000 deaths from 1.6 million cases, Britain's outbreak remains the deadliest in Europe.

The EU's medicines regulator insisted Wednesday it has the "most appropriate" method to approve a coronavirus vaccine, after British ministers claimed that leaving the bloc, and its rules, had allowed them to adopt the jab ahead of their European neighbours.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said it will hold a special meeting by December 29 at the latest to decide on whether to grant conditional approval for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

- Still only at base camp -

The United States, which has suffered the highest virus toll of over 270,000 deaths, hopes to have immunised 100 million people against Covid-19 by the end of February, said Moncef Slauoi, scientific advisor to the government's Operation Warp Speed (OWS) programme.

Meanwhile Mexico said it signed an agreement Wednesday with Pfizer to buy 34.4 million doses of vaccine, with a first batch due to arrive this month.

The cumulative total of Covid-19 cases surged by nearly 30 percent across the Americas in just one month, the Pan American Health Organization warned, releasing figures for November.

Canada is seeing worrying surges along with Brazil, and Cuba.

The World Health Organization's Michael Ryan called the UK vaccine greenlight "fantastic news", but cautioned, "There is a way to go."

It was like finally "reaching the base camp on Mount Everest, but we still have to climb the mountain," said the top doctor from the UN body.

Japan and Italy decided that vaccines, when approved, will provided free to all residents.

As in Britain, Italy plans for medical staff and elderly care homes to be among the first vaccinated.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that cultural and sporting facilities as well as restaurants and bars will remain shut until January 10, extending shutdown measures to curb transmission of the coronavirus.

In Spain, Health Minister Salvador Illa announced that people will exceptionally be able to travel to visit family over Christmas but that such get-togethers will be restricted to 10 people.

Close to 1.5 million people globally had died from the coronavirus by 1800 GMT Wednesday, according to an AFP count based on official sources, while more than 64 million have been infected.

- 'Science will win' -

Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla declared the UK certification a "historic moment in the fight against Covid-19".

"This authorisation is a goal we have been working toward since we first declared that science will win," he said.

US giant Pfizer and German newcomer BioNTech added that they expected further regulatory decisions from other countries "in the coming days and weeks".

Other vaccines expected to come on stream soon include ones from Moderna and AstraZeneca/Oxford University, which has strong backing from the UK government.

Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel greeted the news of Britain's greenlight for the Pfizer vaccine as "very good news"

However he warned that there would be no instant end to the pandemic: "It is going to be frustrating because there is not going to be enough in the first quarter, in the second quarter, in the third quarter" of 2021.

Meanwhile many poorer countries are pinning their hopes on the AstraZeneca/Oxford candidate, which can be kept in regular refrigerators and is being offered at cost price.

But it is undergoing further data analysis after questions were raised over the effectiveness of its dosage regime.

With effectiveness around 95 percent, both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are based on new mRNA technology, which hacks into human cells to effectively turn them into vaccine-making factories.

- Large-scale Russia vaccinations -

Not to be left out, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered "large-scale" vaccinations to start next week with the country's Sputnik V vaccine.

Over 100,000 people have already been vaccinated with Sputnik V, currently in the final stage of clinical trials involving some 40,000 volunteers.

Beyond the hoped-for jabs, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and biotech firm Regeneron are working on a nasal spray that will stop infection from the virus, initially testing the gene therapy on animals.

The pandemic continues to wreak economic havoc, with the International Labour Organization (ILO) warning of "massive downward pressure on wages in the near future".

"The wages of women and low-paid workers have been disproportionately affected," the ILO added.

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PFIZER

REGENERON PHARMACEUTICALS

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