by AFP bureaus

Facing record levels of coronavirus, the United States began shipping vaccine nationwide on Sunday as it launched a massive immunization effort, while in Germany an explosion of cases forced a return to partial lockdown.

Delivery trucks with special refrigeration equipment rolled out of a facility in Kalamazoo, Michigan, as part of an ambitious public-private plan to ship millions of doses of the newly approved Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine to vulnerable Americans.

Delivery services FedEx and UPS are deploying fleets of trucks and planes to carry their precious cargo — sometimes under armed guard — to all 50 states, where healthcare workers and nursing-home residents will be first in line.

As the historical mobilization unfolds, an initial 2.9 million doses are to be delivered by Wednesday, with officials saying 20 million Americans could receive the two-shot regimen by year end, and 100 million by March.

One state governor, Andy Beshear of Kentucky, tweeted Sunday, “We now believe that the first individuals will be vaccinated” on Monday morning — less than 72 hours after the vaccine received emergency authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration.

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The vaccine received a further boost Sunday when the federal Centers for Disease Control accepted the FDA recommendation.

But the breakthrough comes at one of the darkest moments of the global pandemic, with infections in the United States and many other countries soaring and health experts still struggling against vaccine skepticism, lockdown fatigue and uneven adherence to safety rules.

Soaring US death toll
The US has recorded the world’s highest death toll, now exceeding 298,500, and the largest number of cases, at 16.1 million — including more than 1.1 million new cases in just the past week.

Worldwide, there have been at least 1.6 million deaths since the outbreak emerged in China last December, and 71.6 million cases overall.

The start of the US vaccination campaign came as Germany announced a partial lockdown from Wednesday, with non-essential shops and schools to close in a bid to halt an “exponential growth” in infections.

The restrictions, agreed by Chancellor Angela Merkel and regional leaders, will apply through the holidays until January 10, with companies also urged to allow employees to work from home or offer extended company holidays.

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Europe’s biggest economy has been severely hit by a resurgence of the coronavirus, with daily new infections more than three times their springtime peak. Daily death tolls last week approached 600.

Italy meanwhile overtook Britain as the European nation with the highest coronavirus death toll.

“I am worried about the two weeks of Christmas holidays… The battle still has not been won,” Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza warned as the country recorded 64,520 deaths, surpassing Britain’s 64,267.

Elsewhere, South Korea  — once seen as a model of how to combat the pandemic — on Sunday reported 1,030 new coronavirus cases, a record high for a second day in a row.

In Algeria, 75-year-old President Abdelmadjid Tebboune made his first televised appearance since being hospitalized with Covid-19 in October.

“Thanks to God,” he said, “I have started on the road to recovery.”

And President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil faced scathing criticism over his government’s plan — or lack thereof, opponents said — to vaccinate the population.

Brazil, the country with the world’s second-highest death toll, published its vaccination plan Saturday under pressure from the Supreme Court, but listed no start date or details of how it would secure sufficient vaccine.

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Leading newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, in a scathing front-page editorial, said virus-skeptic Bolsonaro had shown “murderous stupidity.”

Don’t let your guard down
Even as US health experts welcomed the unprecedented effort, they cautioned people not to grow lax in observing precautions.

“The next number of weeks are going to be hell, I fear,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy told ABC’s “This Week.”

“So we’re begging people to please, please, please don’t let your guard down.”

UPS and FedEx are to ship glass vials of vaccine to 636 sites around the country by Wednesday.

Some 2.9 million doses are being shipped in boxes containing dry ice that can keep supplies at -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit), the frigid temperature needed to preserve the drug.

Trials have shown the vaccine to be 95 percent effective, and Americans are being told it is safe unless they have an allergy to any of the drug’s components.

© Agence France-Presse