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Biden’s promise of widespread vaccinations by summer prompts frustration in slower-moving Europe

A visitor arrives at a Paris vaccination center on Thursday. (Nathan Laine/Bloomberg News)

Over the past year, the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic has done little to inspire envy or admiration among Europeans.

But that could be starting to change. Late Thursday, President Biden directed states to open up coronavirus vaccines to all adults by May 1 — a glimmer of hope that stood in stark contrast to the state of the vaccine rollout across the Atlantic.

The administration’s goal of allowing small celebrations on July 4 marks a point of departure from the trajectory of the pandemic in Europe, which hit a new roadblock this week when numerous countries halted use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine amid concerns that it could be linked to blood clots, although the European Union’s regulator has not found evidence that it is unsafe. Meanwhile, rising infection numbers have left Italy bracing for a new lockdown, and German health officials are warning that the country is witnessing the start of a third surge.

President Biden on March 11 said he's directing states to make all adult Americans eligible for the coronavirus vaccines by no later than May 1. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In France, where only around 6.4 percent of the population has received a first vaccine shot, commentators on Friday acknowledged that the United States was far ahead.

“It must be admitted that we feel all of America’s power in this vaccination campaign,” said a commentator on RTL, a French broadcaster.

First vaccine doses distributed by Covax land in West African nation of Ghana

Like other European countries, France has faced severe delays in vaccinating its population due to lagging supply and logistical challenges. The country also has high levels of vaccine skepticism — another hurdle.

But there is growing resentment in Europe over the fact that the European Union has approved the export of millions of vaccine doses to other countries, including to U.S. neighbors Mexico and Canada, even as the Biden administration has blocked exports to its neighbors and to the E.U.

An editorial on that discrepancy led the website of one of Germany’s papers of record, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, on Friday, calling the U.S. export ban “egoistical and outrageous.”

Close to a dozen countries have stopped rollouts of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in recent days. Bulgaria on Friday became the latest nation to announce a pause, joining Italy, Denmark and Norway, among others.

Some countries have stopped using the AstraZeneca vaccine altogether while investigations into possible side effects are underway, while others have only stopped administering the specific batch that prompted concerns. The World Health Organization said Friday that there was no reason to suspend use of the vaccine.

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The delays are yet another blow to Europe’s vaccine rollout, which has been marred by shortages and delayed shipments, as well as fights over distribution. Meanwhile, some countries are again seeing caseloads rise.

In Italy, faster-spreading variants, and the inability to vaccinate quickly enough, are feeding a third surge. By Monday, more than half the country is likely to be under a full lockdown, with retail stores closed and in-person dining banned. Italian media said that the government was also likely to put the country under a national lockdown around Easter, the second year in a row that life will be at a standstill for the holiday — in sharp contrast to U.S. expectations for the spring.

Italy over the last three weeks has started to record a clear upward swing in the number of cases, and hospitals in some areas, like the northern city of Brescia, have signaled alarm. Nationwide, the number of patients in intensive care since Feb. 18 has risen 40 percent, to some 3,000 people. During both of the earlier waves, in March and November of last year, the number of people in ICU beds topped out around 4,000.

The round of new restrictions is all the more painful in the face of the slow pace of vaccinations in Italy and elsewhere across Europe. In Italy, only 4.4 million people — 7 percent of the population — have received at least one dose. Of those, 1.8 million have been fully vaccinated.

“Citizens are exhausted after a year of restrictions, of problems,” said Luca Zaia, the governor of the northern Veneto region, which is likely to move into the so-called red zone starting Monday.

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In Germany, the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised that all adults who want to be vaccinated should have been offered one by September. So far, it has administered first doses of vaccine to 7.2 percent of its population, compared to nearly 20 percent in the United States.

“Sadly the pandemic is not over yet,” Lothar Wieler, the president of Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, the federal agency for disease control, said on Friday. “On the contrary, now we are at the beginning of the third wave.”

Germany has been in various stages of lockdown since early November but began to lift some restrictions last week, with schools beginning to open and groups of up to five people from two households allowed to meet in some regions. But a complicated reopening plan rests on infection levels, and those are rising.

“We’re running a marathon,” said Wieler.

Germany has blamed supply issues for the slow pace of its vaccine rollouts, but logistical issues and an initial decision not to administer AstraZeneca to people older than 65 have also hampered efforts. National statistics show that Germany has taken delivery of millions of doses that are yet to be used.

Thomas Mertens, the head of Germany’s vaccine oversight commission said Thursday that he hoped most people to be vaccinated by fall.“ But you know no one can reliably say this,” he added, saying it depends on “how successful are we with vaccines, how many doses are available, and additionally the aspects of the mutations.”

Tobias Kurth, the director of the Charité Hospital’s Institute for Public Health in Berlin, said the United States has under President Biden “pursued a vaccination campaign that works.”

Kurth said he expects Germany to be around three to six months behind the United States, even though the E.U. could still make up for some of it.

He said the E.U. had missed a crucial moment in the middle of last year, when other countries like the U.S. and Britain struck deals with manufacturers. As a result, the E.U. has experienced a severe supply crunch in recent months.

But E.U. countries have also struggled with logistical challenges and have been slow to adapt. Germany, for instance, began constructing major vaccination centers earlier than the countries that now lead international comparisons, but it appeared to have done so under the assumption that it would mostly have access to difficult-to-store products like the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Kurth said Germany failed to adjust its strategy when products that are easier to handle, like the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, neared approval. It has only recently made progress at involving family doctors, who have long played crucial roles in ordinary vaccinations in Germany.

“We have to simplify things,” Kurth said, adding that before receiving his first does, he was required to complete six signed documents.

This report has been updated.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: For people under 50, second booster doses are on hold while the Biden administration works to roll out shots specifically targeting the omicron subvariants this fall. Immunizations for children under 5 became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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