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European Union begins coronavirus vaccine rollout amid concerns over supply


BERLIN - In nursing homes and hospitals from Spain to Poland, the European Union began its official coronavirus mass vaccination program for its 450 million residents on Sunday amid concerns about supply and frustrations over the pace of the roll out. 

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Leaders of the 27-country bloc had aimed to ensure that the vaccine would be available to every country fairly, with every country beginning their vaccination with the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine from Sunday. 

At 8.30 a.m. in Guadalajara, Spain, Araceli Hidalgo, a 96-year-old nursing home resident, became the first person to be vaccinated in the country. In the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Andrej Babis was vaccinated live on television. In Italy, which emerged as the epicenter of the pandemic last spring, doctors and nurses at the Spallanzani hospital in Rome were the first to receive the vaccine. 

"Today is a beautiful, symbolic day," Domenico Arcuri, Italy's emergency coronavirus commissioner told reporters outside the hospital according to the Associated Press. "All the citizens of Europe together are starting to get their vaccinations, the first ray of light after a long night."

But despite the hopeful scenes across Europe, there has been mounting frustration as Europeans have watched Pfizer and BioNtech's vaccine, developed in Germany with German federal government funding, roll out first in a string of countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Israel and the United Arab Emirates. And while the bloc has ordered more than 2 billion vaccine doses as it aims to protect all its citizens against coronavirus, it has limited orders of the front running candidates. 

"There is simply too little vaccine," Markus Söder, the state premier of the German state of Bavaria, told the Bild newspaper on Sunday. 

The 200 million doses of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine ordered by the European Union will be equally divided between each of its member states according to population size, meaning that Germany, with 18 percent of the bloc's population, would receive around 36 million doses - enough to vaccinate 18 million people, just over 20 percent of its population. The country has created a string of mass vaccination centers in sports arenas and exhibition centers. 

The companies have said that delivery time frames depend on when orders were placed, and while the United States and the United Kingdom put in orders for the vaccine earlier in the summer, the European Union only finalized their order in November after months of negotiations. 

That means that while the United States has a smaller initial order of Pfizer vaccines, it will receive 20 million from an initial bucket of 50 million that are available at the turn of the year, compared to 12.5 million for the European Union. 

The delay in ordering was mostly due to haggling over the price, said one person with knowledge of the negotiations, who declined to be named to discuss closed door deliberations. 

"Negotiating with 27 countries is not as easy," the person said. "The advantage is that poorer countries will also receive vaccine. The downside is everything takes longer."

Stefan De Keersmaecker, a spokesman for the commission, said he could not comment on negotiations but that the aim had been to build a diversified portfolio with different companies and talks had begun before results of trials were available. "There was no certainty that any of the vaccine candidates would be effective and safe," he said, adding that contracts allow options for orders to be expanded. 

However, while the United Kingdom and the United States have already used their options to order more vaccine, the European Union had not signed the contract for 100 million further doses as of Wednesday, according to two people familiar with the negotiations. That's despite reports that it had come to an internal decision to do so more than a week earlier. 

"This is a touching moment of unity," European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted on Saturday ahead of the vaccination program's start. "With vaccination, we will put this pandemic behind us." 

But despite a decision to show solidarity with a unified vaccine roll out, Hungary, Slovakia and Germany began vaccinations a day earlier. Karsten Fischer, a local health authority official in the Harz region of Saxony-Anhalt, told German media that he'd seen no reason to wait after vaccines arrived. 

Germany is slated to receive 1.3 million Pfizer vaccines by the end of the year, and enough to vaccinate around 13 percent of its population by March. The vaccine was developed by BioNTech, a German firm based in the city of Mainz run by a husband-and-wife team of scientists in collaboration with Pfizer. 

Berlin gave the German company $469 million in funding in September to help cover the costs of phase three trials and to expand manufacturing capacity. 

The European Union also has a contract to buy 300 million doses of vaccine from AstraZeneca, which could be approved for emergency use in the United Kingdom as early as next week according to British press reports. The vaccine is cheaper and does not have the same complex cold storage requirements as Pfizer and Moderna's offerings. 

Pharmaceutical companies Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline earlier this month said their vaccine would be delayed after showing a weak immune response. 

Published : December 27, 2020

By : The Washington Post · Loveday Morris · WORLD, HEALTH, EUROPE, HEALTH-NEWS