‘Window of hope’: Europe prepares to launch COVID-19 vaccinations

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BUDAPEST/PARIS/MADRID, Dec 26 (Reuters) – Hungary stole a march on its fellow EU nations as it began vaccinating its people against COVID-19 on Saturday, a day ahead of rollouts in several other countries including France, Germany and Spain as the pandemic surges across the continent.

Mass vaccination across the European Union, home to almost 450 million people, would be a crucial step towards ending a pandemic that has killed more than 1.7 million around the world, crippled economies and destroyed businesses and jobs.

The distribution of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, which was first rolled out in Britain earlier this month, presents tough challenges. The vaccine uses new mRNA genetic technology, which means it must be stored at ultra-low temperatures of around -80 degrees Celsius (-112°F).

France, which received its first shipment of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Saturday, will start administering it on Sunday in the greater Paris area and in the Burgundy-Franche-Comte region.

“We have 19,500 doses in total, which amounts to 3,900 vials. These doses will be stored in our freezer at minus 80 degrees (Celsius) and will be then distributed to different nursing homes and hospitals,” said Franck Huet, head of pharmaceutical products for the Paris public hospital system.

The French government is hoping to get around one million people vaccinated in nursing homes during January and February, and then a further 14-15 million in the wider population between March and June.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved by the French medical regulator on Thursday.

In Spain, the boxes arrived by truck at a storage facility near Madrid as dawn broke. Employees at Spain’s medicines agency unpacked the vaccine, which is stored in dry ice, with gloved hands.

“Vaccination will start tomorrow in Spain, coordinated with the rest of Europe,” Health Minister Salvador Illa wrote on Twitter. “This is the beginning of the end of the pandemic.”

Doses will be taken by air to the Spanish islands and the North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, and by road to other regions of the country, where a total of about 50,000 people have died from the disease.

Germany, meanwhile, said trucks were on their way to deliver the vaccine to care homes for the elderly, which are first in line to receive the vaccine on Sunday.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country rose by 14,455 to 1,627,103, data from the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases showed on Saturday. More than 29,000 people have died, in total.

The federal government is planning to distribute more than 1.3 million vaccine doses to local health authorities by the end of this year and about 700,000 per week from January.

“There may be a few hiccups at one point or another in the beginning, but that is quite normal when such a logistically complex process begins,” said Health Minister Jensen Spahn.

In Portugal, a truck escorted by police dropped off the first batch of COVID-19 jabs at a warehouse in the country’s central region. From there, the nearly 10,000 shots will be delivered to five big hospitals.

“It is a historic milestone for all of us, an important day after such a difficult year,” Health Minister Marta Temido told reporters outside the warehouse.

“A window of hope has now opened, without forgetting that there is a very difficult fight ahead.”

(Additional reporting by Yiming Woo and Sudip Kar-Gupta in Paris, Arno Schuetze in Frankfurt and Catarina Demony in Lisbon; Writing by Pravin Char; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Photos – EPA-EFE

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