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European Union begins coronavirus vaccine rollout amid concerns over supply

The European Union launched its official coronavirus mass vaccination program on Dec. 27. (Video: Reuters)
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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.

Leaders of the 27-country bloc had aimed to ensure that the vaccine would be available to every country fairly. Each began administering the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Sunday.

At 8.30 a.m., Araceli Hidalgo, a 96-year-old nursing home resident in Guadalajara, Spain, became the first person in the country to be vaccinated. In the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Andrej Babis received a dose live on television. In Italy, which became a global hot spot in the 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, the Associated Press reported. “All the citizens of Europe together are starting to get their vaccinations, the first ray of light after a long night.”

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The hopeful scenes across Europe on Sunday followed mounting frustration as Europeans watched the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, developed in Germany with German federal government funding, roll out first in a string of countries outside the E.U., including the United States, Britain, Israel and the United Arab Emirates. While the bloc has ordered more than 2 billion vaccine doses as it aims to protect all its citizens against the coronavirus, most are of candidates that have not yet been approved for use.

“There is simply too little vaccine,” Markus Söder, premier of the German state of Bavaria, told the Bild newspaper on Sunday. His state of 13 million people received 9,750 doses on Saturday, enough to protect 4,875 people.

The United States has already vaccinated a million people.

The 200 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine ordered by the E.U. are to be divided equally among the member states according to population. Germany, with 18 percent of the bloc’s population, will receive around 36 million doses — enough to vaccinate 18 million people, just over 20 percent of its population. The country has created mass vaccination centers in sports arenas and exhibition centers.

The companies say delivery dates depend on when orders were placed. The United States and Britain submitted their orders for the vaccine during the summer. The E.U. finalized its order in November after months of negotiations.

That means that while the United States has a smaller initial order of Pfizer-BioNTech 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 E.U.

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The delay in ordering was due mostly to haggling over the price, said one person with knowledge of the negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity 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 European Commission, said he could not comment on negotiations. The aim, he said, was to build a diversified portfolio with different companies, and talks had begun before trial results were available. “There was no certainty that any of the vaccine candidates would be effective and safe,” he said. He said contracts allow options for orders to be expanded.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed optimism that the bloc would have more vaccines than needed to vaccinate everyone in Europe by the end of 2021.

“Europe is well positioned,” she said.

Still, while the United States and Britain have already exercised their options to order more doses of the vaccine, the E.U. 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.

After friction over the supply of medical equipment earlier in the pandemic, European leaders have been keen to show a unified face with the vaccine rollout.

“This is a touching moment of unity,” von der Leyen tweeted on Saturday ahead of the vaccination program’s start. “With vaccination, we will put this pandemic behind us.”

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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 he had seen no reason to wait after vaccines arrived. Each German state received 9,750 doses on Saturday.

Germany is slated to receive 1.3 million Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines around the turn of the year and expects 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 E.U. has a contract to buy 300 million doses of a vaccine from AstraZeneca, which could be approved for emergency use in the United Kingdom as early as next week, according to British media reports. The vaccine is cheaper and does not have the same complex cold storage requirements as Pfizer’s and Moderna’s offerings.

There were some initial road bumps in the Pfizer vaccine rollout in Bavaria on Sunday. Vaccinations were delayed in eight districts amid concerns that they had not been stored at the right temperature during transportation.

The E.U. has ordered 80 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine and 200 million of Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot offering, which is still in stage-three trials.

Pharmaceutical companies Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline, with whom the E.U. also has an order, said this month that their vaccine would be delayed after showing a weak immune response.

German firm CureVac is just beginning phase-three trials.

Quentin Aries in Brussels contributed to this report.

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