EU prepares Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine programme amid virus surge

The EU is preparing a mass vaccination campaign this week as Covid-19 continues to surge across Europe.

Hungary stole a march on other member states as it began inoculations on Saturday, a day before campaigns in several other countries including France, Germany and Spain.

About 450 million people live in the bloc.

Hungary administered the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech to frontline workers at hospitals in the capital, Budapest.

Its first shipment of the vaccine has enough doses to inoculate 4,875 people.

The first worker to receive the shot was Adrienne Kertesz, a doctor at Del-Pest Central Hospital.

“We are very happy that the vaccine is here,” Zsuzsa and Antal Takacs, a couple aged 68 and 75, said while playing table tennis in a Budapest park.

“We will get the vaccination because our daughter had a baby in France last month and we want to go to see them. We do not dare travel before we get the vaccine,” Ms Takacs said.

The Hungarian programme began a day before countries including France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Portugal and Spain planned to begin mass vaccinations, starting with health workers.

The distribution of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot presents tough challenges. The vaccine uses new mRNA genetic technology, which means it must be stored at an ultra-low temperature of about -80 degrees Celsius.

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 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 hopes to vaccinate about one million nursing home residents during January and February, followed by a further 14 to 15 million people in the wider population between March and June.

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

France reported more than 20,000 new Covid-19 infections on Friday for the second day running, something not seen since November 20. The seven-day moving average of daily new cases, which evens out reporting irregularities, is at a one-month high of 14,969

France’s number of confirmed Covid-19 cases now exceeds 2.5 million, the fifth-highest tally in the world, while its Covid-19 death toll stands at 62,573, the seventh-highest.

In a concerning development, the health ministry said on Friday that a man who recently arrived from London had tested positive for a new variant of the virus that has been spreading rapidly in southern England and is thought to be more infectious.

In Spain, Madrid health authorities said on Saturday they had confirmed four cases of the new variant, as the country received its first deliveries of the vaccine.

The boxes arrived by lorry at a storage centre 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, co-ordinated 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, in which about 50,000 people have died of Covid-19.

Germany said lorries were delivering the vaccine to care homes for the elderly, which are first in line to receive the vaccine on Sunday.

The number of confirmed infections in the country rose by 14,455 to 1,627,103, data from the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases showed on Saturday. About 30,000 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 Jens 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, about 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.”

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