The Netherlands has become the latest European country to limit AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine to people aged under 65, despite the European Union approving it for all ages.

France, Germany, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden are among the other countries to put age limits on the vaccine, which was developed by the company with Oxford University.

"Because the immune system starts to function less well with increasing age, the council considers the vaccine suitable for people up to the age of 65," the Dutch Health Council said in a statement.

The council said it "recommends that the first available doses of the vaccine from AstraZeneca be used in elderly people aged 60 to 65 years".

The vaccine's efficacy in people aged over 55 was unclear because only a small number of that group took part in clinical trials, it added.

The age limit comes despite the fact that the Netherlands has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe after starting its vaccination programme later than any other EU country.

The European Medicines Agency, the EU's drug regulator, approved the AstraZeneca vaccine last Friday for all ages despite the lack of data for older people, saying that the bloc's countries needed to "have these options available to them".

Variant detected in UK reported in Italian town

Italian health experts have warned of new coronavirus variants beginning to circulate in Italy, as authorities pinpointed an outbreak of a strain first detected in the UK being reported in a northern town.

Corzano in the Lombardy region has been swabbing close contacts of students and teachers in a school where 24 people tested positive for Covid-19 last month.

After 139 people were found positive out of 189 tested, health authorities in the province of Brescia decided to sequence the samples, which identified the variant.

"Fourteen samples were sequenced which resulted in ... 14 positives for the British variant," the Brescia health agency wrote in a statement.

The more easily transmissible variant of the coronavirus is one of several to have emerged internationally in recent months.

Although only one of the 139 people who tested positive in Corzano has been hospitalised, and most others are asymptomatic, health experts warned that the arrival of new virus variants should not be underestimated.

But they believe they have successfully contained the outbreak, saying that in the first three days of February, only one or two people a day had tested positive for the virus.

Italy was the first European country to be hit by coronavirus a year ago and more than 90,000 people with Covid-19 have died.


Latest coronavirus stories


Independent health think tank GIMBE said overall cases had recently declined thanks to restrictions on movement over the Christmas and New Year's holidays and into January.

But it warned that the first signs of increases in some regions could point to the presence of new variants. 

GIMBE President Nino Cartabellotta said the country was undergoing "one of the most critical phases of the pandemic".

UK's vaccine minister says 4,000 Covid variants exist

The UK's vaccine minister has said there are around 4,000 variants of the virus that causes Covid-19 around the world now so all vaccine manufacturers including Pfizer and AstraZeneca are trying to improve their vaccines.

"Its very unlikely that the current vaccine won't be effective on the variants whether in Kent or other variants especially when it comes to severe illness and hospitalisation," Vaccine Deployment Minister Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News.

"All manufacturers, Pfizer-Biontech, Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca and others are looking at how they can improve their vaccine to make sure that we are ready for any variant - there are about 4,000 variants around the world of Covid now."

He added: "We have the largest genome sequencing industry - we have about 50% of the world's genome sequencing industry - and we are keeping a library of all the variants so that we are ready to be able to respond, whether in the autumn or beyond, to any challenge the virus may present, and produce the next vaccine so we can always protect the United Kingdom and of course the rest of the world as well."

Mr Zahawi also said a government-backed study to determine whether different coronavirus vaccines can safely be used for the first and second doses would not impact on the current roll-out.

German health minister hints at easing restrictions

German Health Minister Jens Spahn has suggested coronavirus restrictions could be lifted before spring, as case numbers in the country continued to edge downwards.

"We can't stay in this hard lockdown all winter. We would not tolerate that well as a society," Mr Spahn said in an interview with the Funke media group. 

Germany went into a partial lockdown in November, closing bars, restaurants and cultural and sporting facilities.

Schools and non-essential shops were added to the list in mid-December, with rules on mask-wearing and working from home tightened in January amid concerns over new virus variants. 

The number of new infections and patients in intensive care has been falling steadily since the start of the year, a trend Mr Spahn called "encouraging". 

A few people walk through a shopping street in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, during Covid-19 restrictions

But the Robert Koch Institute health body reported 14,211 new cases and 786 deaths today and an incidence rate of 81 - still well above the target of 50 that German politicians have set as a yardstick for reopening.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of Germany's 16 states will meet next week to decide whether to extend restrictions after they are due to expire on 14 February.

Red Cross to help 500 million get Covid shots

The Red Cross has launched a plan to help get 500 million people vaccinated against Covid-19, saying that leaving the world's poorest exposed to the virus could backfire spectacularly.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said it would throw its weight into the distribution and acceptance of vaccines among some of the hardest-to-reach communities around the world.

The Geneva-based IFRC said it would spend 100 million Swiss francs (€92.5m) on the push and was already working with governments in more than 60 countries to see where its help could be the most effective.

"The current lack of equity in the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines is alarming and could backfire to deadly and devastating effect," IFRC secretary general Jagan Chapagain told reporters.

He said that nearly 70% of vaccine doses administered so far had been in the world's 50 richest countries while only 0.1% had been deployed in the world's poorest 50.

North Korea to receive Covid-19 vaccine after making request
            
North Korea has requested Covid-19 vaccines and is expected to receive nearly two million doses, according to the Gavi vaccine alliance, part of the WHO-backed Covax programme, although the isolated country has insisted it is virus-free.

It is the first official confirmation that the North has asked for international help, with the country's medical infrastructure is seen as woefully inadequate for dealing with any large-scale outbreak.

The Covax scheme, co-led by the Gavi alliance, will distribute 1.99 million doses to the North, according to Covax's interim distribution report released this week.

North Korea has insisted it has not recorded any cases of the coronavirus

All countries receiving interim allocations of vaccines "have submitted requests for vaccines", a Gavi spokesman said.

According to the report, the North is to receive the AstraZeneca-Oxford jab produced by the Serum Institute of India.

Pyongyang closed its borders in late January last year - the first country in the world to do so - in a bid to protect itself against the coronavirus.

It has long insisted that it has had no cases, with its leader Kim Jong-un reiterating the claim at a huge military parade in October.

Experts suggest that is unlikely, given the virus first emerged in neighbouring China, its main provider of trade and aid.