WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, US Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff hold a moment of silence during a candlelight ceremony in honor of those who lost their lives to the coronavirus on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday. - AFP

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden ordered flags lowered to half-mast Monday after the United States crossed the "heartbreaking" milestone of 500,000 COVID-19 deaths, while Britain eyed lifting lockdowns in the latest sign of global gains against the pandemic. "I know what it's like," an emotional Biden said in a national television address, referring to his own long history of family tragedies.

"I ask all Americans to remember, remember those we lost and those they left behind," Biden said. "I also ask us to act, to remain vigilant, to say socially distant, to mask up, to get vaccinated." Biden, accompanied by his wife Jill and Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff, then stood outside the White House to mark a moment's silence in front of 500 candles representing the toll - the highest reported of any country.

Earlier, flags were lowered over the White House and at federal buildings nationwide as well as at embassies around the world. "As a nation we cannot and must not let this go on," Biden said, urging unity. "We have to fight this together as one people, as the United States of America.

Unlike his predecessor Donald Trump, who often sought to minimize the disease, Biden has made the pandemic his top priority, simultaneously pushing an aggressive vaccine rollout and making frequent, public shows of empathy. It is a strategy that could make or break the Biden presidency, already juggling high-stakes economic challenges and the tense political aftermath of the Trump era.

Biden has warned that the US toll could still go "well over" 600,000. But signs are also emerging that progress is being made both in the United States and around the world, with infections dropping sharply and vaccine deliveries rising steadily.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined a "gradual and cautious" approach to lifting curbs in England that could see life there return almost to normal by the end of June. The first step will be the return of children to schools from March 8. There was also good news from a University of Edinburgh study finding that Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccinations have led to a "substantial reduction" in COVID-19 admissions to hospitals in Scotland.

Despite the dramatic losses in the United States, the trend there is also sharply downward. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control, said US deaths are at their lowest since December, with a 39 percent drop in the latest seven-day average of new daily cases. Globally, the toll is nearing 2.5 million.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization on Monday blasted wealthy countries for not only hogging COVID vaccines but in doing so, hindering the pathway for poorer nations to get them too. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said some rich countries' direct deals with manufacturers had meant that previously-agreed vaccine allocations for poorer countries, via the Covax program, were being reduced.

The UN health agency chief said money was available to procure doses for some of the poorest countries, following fresh contributions from the United States, the European Union and Germany - but it was worthless if there was nothing to buy. Tedros urged wealthy nations to check whether their own deals with pharmaceutical companies were undermining Covax, which poorer countries are relying on as they await their first doses.

"Even if you have the money, if you cannot use the money to buy vaccines, having the money doesn't mean anything," he told a virtual press conference with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The ONE Campaign, an organization co-founded by U2 singer Bono, said last week that members of the Group of Seven top industrialized nations along with the rest of the EU plus Australia had collectively bought nearly 1.25 billion more doses than they needed to inoculate every member of their populations against COVID-19.

The first wave of Covax vaccines are to be shipped out between late February and the end of June. Some 145 participating economies are set to receive 337.2 million doses - enough to vaccinate a little over three percent of their combined populations. Covax has said it hopes to raise the figure to up to 27 percent in lower-income countries by the end of December.

Steinmeier said that although countries were focused on protecting their own citizens from coronavirus, it made sense for the wealthier nations speeding ahead in the vaccine race to ensure that people in poorer nations were jabbed at the same time.

The European Commission is working with pharmaceutical giants to ramp up production of vaccines to between two and three billion doses per year, more than enough for the EU population of 450 million. Visiting the Pfizer-BioNTech plant in Puurs, Belgium, EU Commissioner Thierry Breton said the goal was for Europe to become the number one vaccine producing continent, but that its neighbors would not be forgotten.

Earlier, Tedros called for intellectual property rights on COVID-19 medical goods to be waived - a move which could facilitate greater knowledge-sharing and the rapid scale-up of production sites. The idea, currently before the World Trade Organization, is staunchly opposed by pharmaceutical giants.

Tedros also urged pharmaceutical companies that were not making their own COVID-19 vaccines to turn over their facilities to produce other companies' doses, as Sanofi has done for the Pfizer-BioNTech jab. "If we increase the pie, then better opportunities to share it equitably too." Steinmeier however said he did not think a waiver for patents or licensing "would be the right approach". - AFP