The EU's medicines regulator brought forward its decision day for the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine under pressure from Germany, meaning vaccinations in the bloc could start by the year's end.
The Amsterdam-based European Medicines Agency's announcement that it will meet on 21 December instead of 29 December to decide whether to authorise the shot, followed a growing backlash from desperate EU countries.
Europe has been lagging behind after Britain - the EMA's former home - became the first country in the world to grant emergency approval for the vaccine, swiftly followed by the United States, Canada, Singapore and Bahrain.
The EMA said in a statement that it had received "additional data" from the company on Monday that was requested by the EMA committee that examines medicines for human use.
"An exceptional meeting of the (committee) has now been scheduled for 21 December to conclude if possible," the EMA said in a statement.
The EMA added that it would reach its decision "only once the data on the quality, safety and effectiveness of the vaccine are sufficiently robust and complete to determine whether the vaccine's benefits outweigh its risks".
The agency announced no change to the planned 12 January date for a decision on the Moderna vaccine.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen welcomed the announcement, saying it meant vaccinations would likely start before the end of the year.
Every day counts - we work at full speed to authorise #COVID19 vaccines that are safe & effective.— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) December 15, 2020
I welcome @EMA_News bringing forward its meeting to discuss the @pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, before Christmas.
Likely that the first Europeans will be vaccinated before end 2020!
Germany had earlier piled pressure on the EMA, saying it wanted it to approve the vaccine "before Christmas".
"The goal is to get approval before Christmas," German Health Minister Jens Spahn told a press conference in Berlin. "We want to start vaccinating in Germany before the end of the year."
Berlin had added its weight to earlier calls led by Hungary and Poland for the EMA to move faster.
Then the pressure mounted a summit of EU leaders last week.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he had urged the EMA to grant authorisation "as quickly as possible", adding that "several European leaders" had backed him.
He demanded the agency bring forward its decision day, adding: "Each day counts, each day means enormous human losses, new infections, enormous losses for the economy."
Italy joined the growing clamour, with Health Minister Roberto Speranza saying on Tuesday that he hoped the EMA "will be able to approve the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine ahead of schedule".
Criticism of the EMA was further fuelled by a hack of the agency announced earlier in December, in which data from both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines was taken.
The agency had previously said the reason Britain, the United States and Canada moved faster was that they approved short-term emergency use without licensing, whereas it is going for a full one-year conditional licensing of the vaccine.
It insisted staff were working around the clock to study lab data and results of large clinical trials as they come in.
"Whilst speed is of the essence, safety is our number one priority. These vaccines will be given to millions of people in the EU and we are keenly aware of the huge responsibility we have," EMA chief Emer Cooke told MEPs last week.
The Irishwoman, who only took the reins at the agency a month ago, added however that the goal was also to ensure a rollout of the vaccine across all 27 EU countries at the same time.
"This means that all member states, big or small, will benefit from the joint work done at EU level and that all member states can start preparing for vaccine campaigns," she said.
Coronavirus affects 47% of migrant workers in Singapore dormitories
Nearly half of Singapore's migrant workers residing in dormitories have had Covid-19, according to the government, indicating the virus has spread much more widely in such accommodation than the official tally shows.
Singapore has reported more than 58,000 coronavirus cases since the pandemic started, with the vast majority occurring in the cramped dormitories that house mainly South Asian low-wage workers.
But the government said today that while 54,505 workers had tested positive for the virus using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, an additional 98,289 had tested positive using serology tests.
PCR tests diagnose current or new infections and serology tests indicate past infection.
The prevalence rate of Covid-19 in the dormitories is currently 47%, including the serology test results.
The virus's prevalence rate in the wider Singaporean population was about 0.25% based on a serology sampling study of 1,600 people, according to a health ministry official.
Meanwhile, Singapore said today it will open a new segregated travel lane for a limited number of business, official and high economic value travellers from all countries, as part of efforts to revive its key travel and hospitality sectors.
1.5 million positive cases in Argentina
Argentina has recorded 1.5 million cases of coronavirus, making it the ninth country in the world to reach the milestone.
The Latin American nation has managed to tame an explosion of cases, which reached a peak of 18,326 daily cases confirmed in October. It saw a steady decline in case numbers over recent weeks to 5,062 confirmed today.
The Argentinian Ministry of Health said there have been 1,503,222 people infected so far with Covid, with 41,041 fatalities.
China records 17 new infections
Mainland China reported 17 new Covid-19 cases in the past 24 hours, up from 16 cases a day earlier, the country's national health authority said today.
The National Health Commission, in a statement, said 14 of the new cases were imported infections originating from overseas.
An additional three locally transmitted cases were also reported, two in Heilongjiang province and one in Sichuan.
The number of new asymptomatic cases, not classified by China as confirmed cases, fell to eight from nine a day earlier.
The total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in China nowstands at 86,758. The death toll remains unchanged at 4,634.
Social distancing plea to South Koreans
South Korea's Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun has pleaded with residents to abide by social distancing rules to avoid even greater restrictions in the face of the country's largest wave of coronavirus infections.
Daily infection rates are hovering at record levels with another 880 new cases reported as of midnight last night, up from 718 a day earlier, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said.
The government is reluctant to impose the toughest Level 3 restrictions because of the "irrevocable pain" it would cause, Mr Chung said.
Companies could allow only essential workers in offices and gatherings of more than 10 people would be banned under such a lockdown.
Japanese poll on Tokyo Games cancellation
One third of Japanese residents want the Tokyo Olympics to be scrapped amid fears that an influx of foreign arrivals may cause a further spike in Covid-19 cases, a poll by public broadcaster NHK showed today.
The Japanese government and International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided in March to postpone the 2020 Olympics by a year due to pandemic, with the Games now slated to take place from 23 July to 8 August, 2021.
But as Japan grapples with a third wave of infections, the NHK poll showed 32% of respondents wanted the Summer Olympic Games to be cancelled entirely.
Only 27% said they should go ahead as scheduled while 31% favoured another delay.