'The beginning of the end': Europe rolls out vaccines to fight pandemic

By Isla Binnie and Giselda Vagnoni
MADRID / ROM (Reuters) - Europe launched a mass vaccination campaign against COVID-19 on Sunday, with retirees and medical professionals lining up to receive the first shots of a pandemic that has crippled the economy and claimed more than 1.7 million lives worldwide Has.
"Thank God," said 96-year-old Araceli Hidalgo when she was the first person in Spain to receive a vaccine in her nursing home in Guadalajara, near the capital, Madrid. "Let's see if we can make this virus go away."
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In Italy, the first country in Europe to record a significant number of infections, 29-year-old nurse Claudia Alivernini was one of three medical workers at the head of the queue for the shot developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.
"It's the beginning of the end ... it was an exciting, historic moment," she said at Spallanzani Hospital in Rome.
The 450 million-strong region is trying to catch up with the US and UK, both of whom have already started vaccinating with the Pfizer / BioNTech shot.
The EU is expected to receive 12.5 million doses of the shot by the end of the year, enough to vaccinate 6.25 million people under the two-dose regime. Businesses are striving to meet global demand and aim to get 1.3 billion recordings in the next year.
Europe has signed contracts with a number of drug companies besides Pfizer, including Moderna and AstraZeneca, totaling more than two billion vaccine doses, with a goal of having all adults vaccinated by 2021.
While Europe has some of the best-equipped health systems in the world, due to the scale of the effort, some countries are calling on retired doctors to help, while others have relaxed the rules for who can give the injections.
With surveys pointing to high levels of reluctance to use the vaccine in countries from France to Poland, leaders of the 27-country European Union are promoting it as the best chance to return to a normal life next year.
"We have a new weapon against the virus: the vaccine. We have to stand firm again," tweeted French President Emmanuel Macron, who tested positive for the corona virus this month and left quarantine on Christmas Eve.
After criticizing European governments for not working together to counter the spread of the virus in early 2020, the goal this time is to ensure equal access to vaccines across the region.
But even then, Hungary jumped the gun at the official roll-out on Saturday by firing shots to frontline workers in hospitals in the capital Budapest.
Slovakia also got some vaccinations against medical staff on Saturday, and in Germany a small number of people in a nursing home were also vaccinated a day earlier.
"We don't want to waste the one day on which the vaccine loses its shelf life," said Karsten Fischer from the Harz pandemic staff in the state of Saxony-Anhalt to the local broadcaster MDR.
Distributing the shot poses major challenges as the vaccine uses a new mRNA technology and must be stored at extremely low temperatures of around -70 degrees Celsius (-112 ° F).
In Germany, several vaccination centers in northern Bavaria stopped vaccinating people after there was uncertainty about whether the cold chain had been maintained.
"When reading the temperature loggers that were contained in the cool boxes, doubts arose about compliance with the cold chain requirements," said the vaccination centers in Coburg, Lichtenfels, Kronach, Kulmbach, Hof, Bayreuth and Wunsiedel in a joint statement.
Pfizer recordings used in Europe were shipped from their facility in Puurs, Belgium, in specially designed dry ice containers. They can be stored for up to six months at Antarctic winter temperatures or five days at 2 ° C to 8 ° C, a type of cooling commonly used in hospitals.
In addition to hospitals and nursing homes, sports halls and convention centers, which are vacant due to lockdown restrictions, are becoming places for mass vaccination.
In Italy, temporary solar-powered health pavilions, designed to look like five-petaled primrose flowers - a symbol of spring - sprout in the city's squares.
At the Santa Maria Hospital in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, Pedro Pires was waiting for a shot with other nurses after a 10-hour night shift. "It was exhausting ... a lot of work," he told Reuters.
Branka Anicic, 81, lives in a nursing home in Zagreb and was the first person to get a shot in Croatia. "I'm glad I can see my great-grandchildren now," she said.
The vaccinations also started in Norway, which is not a member of the bloc but part of the EU's effort.
"I feel like a historical figure ... almost like the first man on the moon," said 67-year-old nursing home resident Svein Andersen when he received the country's first shot in the capital, Oslo.
Some other European countries outside the EU, such as the UK, Switzerland and Serbia, have already started vaccinating their citizens with the Pfizer shock in the past few weeks.
The vaccination campaign is all the more urgent given concerns about new variants of the virus related to a rapid spread of cases in the UK and South Africa. [nL8N2J42MB]
"We know the pandemic won't just go away from today, but the vaccine is the beginning of the victory over the pandemic, the vaccine is a game changer. We have always known that, and today is the first day of this new one Phase, "said the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.
Over the past week, cases of the British variant have been identified in Australia, Hong Kong and several European countries, notably Sweden and France. So far, according to scientists, there is no evidence that the vaccines developed are less effective against them.
In Spain, cans were delivered by air to the island areas and the North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.
"Today is the first day of the countdown to regaining our lives," said Vassilis Kikilias, the Greek health minister, who made the introduction a more ceremonial matter. The president, the prime minister, the military chief and a bishop were to be shot on Sunday.
"We are at war, but our weapon has arrived and is in these small vials," said the head of the Bulgarian anti-virus task force, General Ventsislav Mutafchiiski, after he was vaccinated in Sofia.
(Additional reporting by Catarina Demony in Lisbon, Silke Koltrowitz in Vienna, Robert Müller in Prague, Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia, Igor Ilic in Zagreb, Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo, Michele Kambas in Athens and Benoit Van Overstraeten in Paris; writing by Mark John and Andrew Heavens; Editing by David Clarke)

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