Warsaw, Poland (AP) – European Union countries officially began a coordinated effort Sunday to give COVID-19 vaccines to some of the most vulnerable among the nearly 450 million people, marking a moment of hope in the continent’s battle against the worst public health crisis in a century.
The shots were given Sunday morning to healthcare workers, the elderly and some prominent politicians to reassure the public that vaccinations are safe.
In Prague, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis took a bullet at dawn and asserted: “There is no need to worry.” In Rome, five doctors and nurses in white scrubs sat in a semicircle at the Spallanzani Infectious Diseases Hospital in Rome to receive their doses.
“Vaccination is an act of love and responsibility towards society as a whole,” said Claudia Ivernini, a 29-year-old nurse from Spallanzani, on the eve of being the first to receive the vaccine in Italy. More than 71,000 dead.
Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza, speaking outside the hospital, said the coordinated launch of the European Union was a sign of hope for the continent, but that people still could not let their guard down for several more months.
“We still have difficult months ahead,” he said. “It’s a beautiful day, but we still need to be careful … This vaccine is the real way to end this tough season.”
The vaccines, developed by German company BioNTech and US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, began arriving in extremely cold containers to European Union hospitals on Friday from a plant in Belgium. The European Union has seen some of the world’s oldest and most affected regions with the virus, including Italy and Spain.
Other European Union countries, like the Czech Republic, escaped the worst early only to see their healthcare systems on the verge of collapsing in the fall.
In all, the 27 European Union countries have recorded at least 16 million coronavirus infections and more than 336,000 deaths – huge numbers that experts still agree underestimate the real losses of the epidemic due to missing cases and limited testing.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen released a video Saturday to celebrate the launch of the vaccine, describing it as a “moving moment of unity”.
The campaign should alleviate the frustrations that have been building, especially in Germany, where Britain, Canada and the United States began their vaccination programs with the same vaccine weeks ago.
As it turns out, some immunization operations in the European Union started the day before In Germany, Hungary and Slovakia. “Every day we wait is a very, very much day,” said the director of a German nursing home where dozens of people were vaccinated on Saturday, including a 101-year-old woman.
Each country decides who gets the first shots. Spain, France and Germany, among others, have pledged to put the elderly and residents of nursing homes first.
Poland is also giving priority to doctors, nurses and others who are on the front lines of fighting the virus. The central European country largely escaped the boom that hit Western Europe in the spring, but has seen daily infections and high deaths this fall.
European Union leaders are counting on a vaccine rollout to help the bloc show a sense of loneliness in a complex mission to save lives after it faced a year of difficulties negotiating a post-Brexit trade deal.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said: “It’s here, the good news for Christmas.” “This vaccine is the critical key to ending this epidemic … It is the key to getting our lives back.”
Among the politicians planning to get an injection of the virus on Sunday, as a way to promote wider acceptance of vaccinations, are Slovak President Zuzana Kaputova and Bulgarian Health Minister Kostdin Angelov.
Meanwhile, the first cases of a new virus variant that spread rapidly around London and southern England were discovered in France and Spain. The new alternative, which British authorities said was easy to transfer, prompted European countries, the United States and China to impose new restrictions on people traveling from Britain.
The German pharmaceutical company BioNTech is confident that its coronavirus vaccine works against the new variant in the UK, but said that more studies are needed to fully confirm this.
On January 6, the European Medicines Agency will consider approving a second coronavirus vaccine, this one from Moderna, which has already been approved for use in the United States.
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