Europe launched a mass COVID-19 vaccination drive on Sunday with pensioners and medics lining up to get the first shots to see off a pandemic that has crippled economies and claimed more than 1.7 million lives worldwide.
“Thank God,” 96-year-old Araceli Hidalgo said as she became the first person in Spain to have a vaccine at her care home in Guadalajara near the capital Madrid. “Let’s see if we can make this virus go away.”
In Italy, the first country in Europe to record significant numbers of infections, 29-year-old nurse Claudia Alivernini was one of three medical staff at the head of the queue for the shot developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.
“It is the beginning of the end … it was an exciting, historic moment,” she said at Rome’s Spallanzani hospital.
The region of 450 million people is trying to catch up with the United States and Britain which have both already started vaccinations using the Pfizer/BioNTech shot.
The EU is due to receive 12.5 million doses of the shot by the end of the year, enough to vaccinate 6.25 million people based on the two-dose regimen.
The companies are scrambling to meet global demand and aim to make 1.3 billion shots next year.
Europe has secured contracts with a range of drugmakers besides Pfizer including Moderna and AstraZeneca, for a total of more than two billion vaccine doses and has set a goal for all adults to be inoculated during 2021.
While Europe has some of the best-resourced healthcare systems in the world, the sheer scale of the effort means some countries are calling on retired medics to help while others have loosened rules for who is allowed to give the injections.
With surveys pointing to high levels of hesitancy towards the vaccine in countries from France to Poland, leaders of the 27-country European Union are promoting it as the best chance of getting back to something like normal life next year.
“We have a new weapon against the virus: the vaccine. We must stand firm, once more,” tweeted French President Emmanuel Macron, who tested positive for the coronavirus this month and left quarantine on Christmas Eve.
After European governments were criticised for failing to work together to counter the spread of the virus in early 2020, the goal this time is to ensure that there is equal access to the vaccines across the region.
But even then, Hungary on Saturday jumped the gun on the official roll-out by administering shots to frontline workers at hospitals in the capital Budapest.
Slovakia also went ahead with some inoculations of healthcare staff on Saturday and in Germany, a small number of people at a care home were inoculated a day early too.
“We don’t want to waste that one day that the vaccine loses shelf life,” Karsten Fischer, from the pandemic staff of the Harz district in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt, told local broadcaster MDR.
The distribution of the shot presents tough challenges as the vaccine uses new mRNA technology and must be stored at ultra-low temperatures of about -70 degrees Celsius (-112°F).
In Germany, several vaccination centres in Northern Bavaria held off from inoculating people after uncertainty arose on whether the cold chain had been maintained.
“When reading the temperature loggers that were enclosed in the cool boxes, doubts arose about the compliance with the cold chain requirements”, the vaccination centres of Coburg, Lichtenfels, Kronach, Kulmbach, Hof, Bayreuth and Wunsiedel said in a joint statement.
The Pfizer shots being used in Europe were shipped from its factory in Puurs, Belgium, in specially designed containers filled with dry ice. They can be stored for up to six months at Antarctic winter temperatures, or for five days at 2C to 8C, a type of refrigeration commonly available at hospitals.
Beyond hospitals and care homes, sports halls and convention centres left vacant by lockdown restrictions will become venues for mass inoculations.
In Italy, temporary solar-powered healthcare pavilions designed to look like five-petalled primrose flowers – a symbol of spring – sprouted in town squares.
At the Santa Maria hospital in Portugal’s capital Lisbon, Pedro Pires waited for a shot with other nurses at the end of a 10-hour overnight shift. “It has been tiring … a lot of work,” he told Reuters.
Branka Anicic, 81, a resident of a care home in Zagreb became the first person to get a shot in Croatia. “I’m happy I will now be able to see my great-grandchildren,” she said.
Vaccinations also started in Norway, which is not a member of the bloc but part of the EU’s drive.
“I feel like a historical figure … almost like the first man on the Moon,” said care home resident Svein Andersen, 67, as he received the country’s first shot in the capital Oslo.
Some other European countries outside the EU, such as Britain, Switzerland and Serbia, have already started vaccinating their citizens with the Pfizer jab in recent weeks.
The vaccination drive is all the more urgent because of the concern around new variants of the virus linked to a rapid expansion of cases in Britain and South Africa.
“We know that the pandemic won’t just disappear as of today, but the vaccine is the beginning of the victory over the pandemic, the vaccine is a ‘game changer’. We have always know that, and today is the first day of this new phase,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.
Over the past week, cases of the UK variant have been detected in Australia, Hong Kong and in several European countries, mostly recently Sweden and France. So far, scientists say there is no evidence to suggest the vaccines developed will be any less effective against them.
In Spain, doses were delivered by air to its island territories and the North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.
“Today is the first day of the countdown to getting our lives back,” said Vassilis Kikilias, the health minister of Greece where the roll-out was a more ceremonial affair. The president, the premier, the military chief and a bishop were all due to get shots on Sunday.
“We are at war, but our weapon has arrived and it is in these small vials,” the head of Bulgaria’s anti-virus taskforce, General Ventsislav Mutafchiiski said after getting his vaccination in Sofia.
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