Despite hi-tech advances, many Europeans wary of taking COVID shot

By Joanna Plucinska and Tsvetelia Tsolova
WARSAW / SOFIA (Reuters) - Europe launched a major COVID-19 vaccination campaign on Sunday to help contain the coronavirus pandemic. However, many Europeans are skeptical about how quickly the vaccines have been tested and approved and are reluctant to get the shot.
The European Union has signed contracts with a number of drug companies such as Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca for a total of more than two billion doses, with a goal of having all adults vaccinated by the next year.
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However, surveys have shown that vaccination is very hesitant in countries from France to Poland. Many who are used to vaccines take decades to develop, not just months.
"I don't think there is a vaccine in history that has been tested so quickly," said Ireneusz Sikorski, 41, as he stepped out of a church in central Warsaw with his two children.
"I'm not saying there should be no vaccination. But I'm not going to test an unverified vaccine on my children or myself."
Surveys in Poland, where there is great distrust of public institutions, have shown that less than 40% of people are currently planning to get vaccinated. On Sunday only half of the medical staff had registered at a Warsaw hospital where the country's first shot was administered.
In Spain, one of the worst affected countries in Europe, the 28-year-old singer and music composer German from Tenerife also wants to wait.
"Nobody around me had it (COVID-19). I'm obviously not saying it doesn't exist because a lot of people have died from it, but right now I wouldn't have it (the vaccine)."
An Orthodox Christian bishop in Bulgaria, where 45% of respondents said they would not get a shot and 40% plan to wait and see if negative side effects occur, compared COVID-19 to polio.
"I myself am vaccinated against everything I can be," Bishop Tihon told reporters after receiving his shot and standing next to the Minister of Health in Sofia.
He spoke about the fear of polio before vaccination became available in the 1950s and 1960s.
"We were all trembling with fear of getting polio. And then we were over the moon," he said. "Now we have to convince people. It's a shame."
The widespread hesitation does not seem to take into account the scientific developments of the last decades.
The traditional way of making vaccines - introducing a weakened or dead virus, or part of it, to stimulate the body's immune system - takes an average of over a decade, according to a 2013 study. A pandemic flu vaccine lasted over eight years while a hepatitis B vaccine was almost 18 years in production.
Moderna's vaccine, based on what is known as messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) technology, went from gene sequencing to the first human injection in 63 days.
"We'll look back at the progress made in 2020 and say, 'It was a moment when science really took a leap forward," said Jeremy Farrar, director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit, supported by Wellcome Trust.
The Pfizer / BioNTech shot has been linked to some cases of severe allergic reactions since it was introduced in the UK and US. No serious long-term side effects were found in clinical studies.
Independent pollster Alpha Research said its latest poll found that fewer than one in five Bulgarians from the first groups offered the vaccine - frontline doctors, pharmacists, teachers and nursing home staff - were planning to volunteer to get a shot.
An IPSOS survey of 15 countries published on November 5 found that 54% of French people would have a COVID vaccine if one were available. In Italy and Spain it was 64%, in Great Britain 79% and in China 87%.
A later IFOP survey - for which there was no comparative data for other countries - found that only 41% of people in France would take the admission.
In Sweden, where public trust in the authorities is high, like everywhere in the Nordic countries, more than two in three people want to be vaccinated. Still some say no.
"If someone gave me 10 million euros, I wouldn't take it," said Lisa Renberg, 32, on Wednesday.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Sunday urged Poles to register for the vaccination, saying the effect of herd immunity depended on them.
Critics said Warsaw's nationalist leaders have historically been too accepting of anti-vaccination stances to garner conservative support.
(Additional reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk in Warsaw, Colm Fulton in Stockholm, Phil Blenkinsop in Brussels and Silvio Castellanos in Madrid; writing by Justyna Pawlak; editing by Nick Macfie)

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