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

By Isla Binnie and Giselda Vagnoni
MADRID / ROM (Reuters) - Europe launched a massive COVID-19 vaccination campaign on Sunday, with retirees and medical professionals lining up to get the first shots of a pandemic that has crippled the economy and more than 1.7 million worldwide Claimed human life.
"Thank God," said 96-year-old Araceli Hidalgo when she became the first person in Spain to receive a vaccine. She told the staff at her nursing home in Guadalajara, near Madrid, that she had felt nothing. "Let's see if we can make this virus go away."
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 has signed contracts with a number of suppliers for more than two billion doses of vaccine, 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 on who can give the injections.
With surveys pointing to high levels of reluctance to use the vaccine in countries from France to Poland, the 27-country European Union leaders are promoting it as the best chance to return to a normal life next year.
"We are starting to turn the page in a difficult year," said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, which coordinates the program, in a tweet.
"Vaccination is the permanent way out of the pandemic."
Jumped the gun
After criticizing European governments for failing to work together to counter the spread of the virus in early 2020, the goal this time around 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 starting gunshots 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 do not want to waste the one day on which the vaccine loses its shelf life. We want to use it immediately," said Karsten Fischer from the pandemic staff of the Harz region in Saxony-Anhalt to the local broadcaster MDR.
The distribution of the Pfizer / BioNTech shot is associated with great challenges. The vaccine uses a new mRNA technology and has to be stored at extremely low temperatures of around -70 degrees Celsius.
In addition to hospitals and nursing homes, sports halls and convention centers that have been emptied by lockdowns are becoming places for mass vaccinations.
In Italy, temporary solar-powered health pavilions were built in the city's squares, which were supposed to look like five-petaled primrose flowers - a symbol of spring.
Pedro Pires waited for a shot with other nurses after a 10-hour night shift at the Santa Maria Hospital in Lisbon. "It was exhausting ... a lot of work," he told Reuters.
"I'm glad to see my great-grandchildren now," said Branka Anicic, a resident of a nursing home in Zagreb and the first person to get a chance in Croatia.
NEW VARIANT
The vaccination campaign is all the more urgent as concerns arise about a new variant of the virus in the context of a rapid spread of cases in the UK. In the past few days, Sweden and France have also discovered cases of the variant.
So far, according to scientists, there is no evidence that vaccines are less effective against it.
In Spain, cans were delivered by air to the island areas and the North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Portugal is building separate cold stores for its Atlantic archipelagos, Madeira, and the Azores.
In France, a 78-year-old former domestic worker who called her name Mauricette said she moved when she received the first vaccination outside of the country's testing. Staff around her at the Rene-Muret hospital in the Paris suburb of Sevran applauded.
In the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Andrej Babis headed the queue. In Austria, three women and two men over 80 received the vaccine at the Medical University of Vienna, as Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz watched.
"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.
Outside the EU, Great Britain, Switzerland and Serbia have already started vaccinating their citizens in recent weeks.
(Additional reporting by Catarina Demony in Lisbon, Silke Koltrowitz in Vienna, Robert Müller in Prague, Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia and Igor Ilic in Zagreb; writing by Mark John and Andrew Heavens; editing by David Clarke)

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