Washington (AFP) -
US Vice President Mike Pence received a Covid-19 shot on live television Friday as the country prepared to greenlight its second vaccine in a boost to the planet's unprecedented immunization campaign.
Pence's move -- the most high-profile attempt yet at persuading the many vaccine-skeptic Americans -- came as inoculation efforts unfurled worldwide in the race to halt a pandemic that has killed at least 1.66 million people and infected more than 74 million.
Yet in hard-hit Europe -- which is yet to approve a vaccine -- unease mounted after Slovakia's 47-year-old Prime Minister Igor Matovic tested positive Friday for Covid-19 a week after attending an EU summit in Brussels.
The summit is believed to be where French President Emmanuel Macron caught the virus, an announcement a day earlier that led a host of European leaders and top French officials to rush into self-isolation.
Macron acknowledged Friday he had been 'slowed down' by his infection, but insisted he was doing well and still actively involved in 'priority' government business including Brexit.
Elsewhere, world leaders from Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are also pledging to get public injections in order to boost faith in the vaccines.
'Building confidence in the vaccine is what brings us here this morning,' Pence said after receiving the Pfizer/BioNTech shot on the White House complex, with his wife and the country's chief medical officer Jerome Adams.
'I didn't feel a thing,' Pence said.
The event capped the US's first week of a mass vaccination program with the Pfizer/BioNTech shot against a virus that has killed more than 310,000 Americans.
Another vaccine, made by Moderna, is now expected to become the second shot allowed in a Western country after a panel of US experts recommended emergency use approval.
President Donald Trump, who has systematically downplayed the seriousness of Covid-19 throughout the pandemic, was notably absent from Pence's vaccination event.
But he has been eager to take credit for record-fast vaccine breakthroughs.
He sparked some confusion Friday by jumping the gun to declare Moderna approved, ahead of the final verdict from the Food and Drug Administration expected later in the day.
'Distribution to start immediately,' Trump tweeted.
- Two billion doses -
The European Union is facing pressure to approve vaccines after Britain and the United States have administered tens of thousands of shots while China and Russia have launched efforts with domestically-produced vaccines.
The bloc intends to begin its inoculations with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine before the end of the year, with some countries naming December 27 as a start date.
Poorer countries also got a boost Friday when the World Health Organization and partners said vaccines would be distributed early next year to the 190 countries in its Covax initiative, a pooling effort formed to ensure an equitable distribution.
'The light at the end of the tunnel has grown a little bit brighter,' WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual press conference.
Two billion doses have been secured from developers AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Novovax and Sanofi/GSK, though none of their candidates have so far received authorization for use.
In China at least one million people have already received shots from domestically-produced vaccine candidates approved for 'emergency use'.
After focusing on priority groups, the country plans to widen its program to the public in southwestern Sichuan province early next year, health officials said.
China's five coronavirus vaccines are in the final stages of development, but none has received official approval.
- Europe reels, Africa braces -
Even as vaccine plans advance, the virus continues to rage.
In the United States alone, more than 3,000 people are dying a day from the coronavirus and infections keep hitting senior officials.
On Friday the iconic Washington Monument was closed after Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who has reportedly been giving private tours to his associates, tested positive.
Europe is still in the throes of a winter surge that has caused almost 37,000 deaths over the past seven days, the highest weekly toll since the start of the pandemic.
Austria's chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, announced Friday a new month-long lockdown starting December 26 in response to a wave of infections.
And Sweden announced a U-turn on face masks, recommending that they be worn on public transport at peak times, having previously resisted their use in the fight against Covid-19 except in healthcare.
Latin America is also seeing hard days, with Brazil and Mexico logging the highest number of new deaths after the United States.
Mexico City's mayor announced that the capital and neighboring state would suspend almost all activities from this weekend as virus cases rise -- allowing only such essentials as the sale of food, energy, transport, manufacturing and financial services.
But in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro -- who has systemically downplayed the coronavirus -- continued to undermine the country's own immunization campaign, this time with the outlandish suggestion the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine could turn people into 'crocodiles' or 'bearded ladies.'