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FRANKFURT AM MAIN: European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde warned on Thursday that the pandemic still poses "serious risks" to the eurozone economy as concerns grow about new virus variants and sluggish vaccination campaigns.

The Frankfurt institution's governing council held back from tweaking its ultra-loose monetary policy at its first meeting of the year, having already topped up up support in December.

The European Central Bank left interest rates unchanged Thursday, it said in a statement. As expected, the Frankfurt institution kept the rate on its main refinancing operations at zero, on its marginal lending facility at 0.25 percent and its deposit facility rate at -0.5 percent.

Lagarde stressed that "ample monetary stimulus" remained essential to steer the 19-nation currency club through the Covid-19 upheaval, and that the ECB stood ready to do more as needed. "The pandemic continues to pose serious risks to public health and to the euro area and global economies," Lagarde told an online press conference. The start of mass vaccination drives in the European Union was "an important milestone", she said, but the rollout has got off to a bumpy start in many nations. The emergence of more contagious virus variants, first discovered in Britain and South Africa, has added to nervousness at a time when many countries are already struggling to bring down infection numbers.

Europe's top economy Germany this week extended its partial lockdown until February 14, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has not ruled out border checks to slow the spread of the new strains. France and Spain have tightened their evening curfews, while non-essential shops and leisure facilities are closed across much of the continent.

The latest virus setbacks "are disrupting economic activity," Lagarde said, noting that the services sector was hit especially hard.

"The intensification of pandemic poses some downside risks to the short-term economic outlook," she added.

The ECB in December forecast 3.9 percent growth for 2021, after an estimated contraction of 7.3 percent in 2020. She urged European Union members to speed up the ratification of a recently agreed 750-billion-euro recovery fund, saying it had a "key role" to play in financing the region's bounce-back.

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