European Union nations have launched a co-ordinated effort to give Covid-19 vaccinations to adults among their 450 million citizens.
Shots were administered on Sunday morning to the most vulnerable people, healthcare workers who take care of them, and some politicians to reassure the public that the vaccinations are safe.
The vaccines, developed by Germany’s BioNTech and American drug maker Pfizer, started arriving in EU countries on Friday. The EU has seen some of the world’s earliest and hardest-hit virus hot spots, including Italy and Spain.
Others EU countries, like the Czech Republic, were spared the worst early on only to see their healthcare systems near collapse in the autumn.
Altogether, the EU’s 27 nations have recorded at least 16 million coronavirus cases and more than 336,000 deaths — huge numbers that experts still agree understate the true toll of the pandemic due to missed cases and limited testing.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen released a video celebrating the vaccine rollout, calling it “a touching moment of unity”.
Some EU immunisations began a day early in Germany, Hungary and Slovakia. The operator of a German nursing home where dozens of people were vaccinated on Saturday, including a 101-year-old woman, said “every day that we wait is one day too many”.
The campaign should ease frustrations that were building up, especially in Germany, as the UK, Canada and the US kicked off their inoculation programmes with the same vaccine weeks earlier.
Each country is deciding on its own who will get the first shots. Spain, France and Germany, among others, are vowing to put the elderly and residents in nursing homes first.
In Italy, which has Europe’s worst virus toll at more than 71,000 dead, a nurse in Rome’s Spallanzani Hospital, the main infectious diseases facility in the capital, will be the first in the country to receive the vaccine, followed by other health personnel.
Poland is also prioritising doctors, nurses and others on the front lines of fighting the virus. The central European nation was largely spared the surge that badly hit Western Europe in the spring, but has been hit by high daily infections and deaths this autumn.
EU leaders are counting on the vaccine rollout to help the bloc project a sense of unity in a complex lifesaving mission after it faced a year of difficulties in negotiating a post-Brexit trade deal with Britain.
German health minister Jens Spahn said: “It’s here, the good news at Christmas. This vaccine is the decisive key to end this pandemic … it is the key to getting our lives back.”
Among politicians who plan to get virus shots on Sunday, as a way of promoting a wider acceptance of vaccinations, are Slovakian President Zuzana Caputova and Bulgarian health minister Kostadin Angelov.
Meanwhile, the first cases of a new virus variant that has been spreading rapidly around London and southern England have now been detected in France and Spain. The new variant, which UK authorities said is much more easily transmitted, has caused European countries, the United States and China to put new restrictions on travel for people from the UK.
The German pharmaceutical company BioNTech is confident that its coronavirus vaccine works against the new UK variant, but said further studies are needed to be completely certain.
The European Medicines Agency will be considering approving a second coronavirus vaccine on January 6, this one by Moderna, which has already been approved for use in the United States.