Europe rolls out 'new weapon' vaccines

Isla Binnie and Giselda Vagnoni
·3-min read

Europe has launched a mass COVID-19 vaccination drive with pensioners and medics lining up for the first shots to see off a pandemic that has crippled economies and claimed more than 1.7 million lives worldwide.

"Thank God," 96-year-old Araceli Hidalgo said as she became the first person in Spain to have a vaccine on Sunday.

"Let's see if we can make this virus go away."

In Italy 29-year-old nurse Claudia Alivernini was at the head of the queue for the shot developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.

"It is the beginning of the end ... it was an exciting, historic moment," she said at Rome's Spallanzani hospital.

The region of 450 million people is trying to catch up with the United States and Britain, which have already started vaccinations using the Pfizer shot.

The European Union is due to receive 12.5 million doses by the end of the year, enough to vaccinate 6.25 million people based on the two-dose regimen.

The companies are scrambling to meet global demand and aim to make 1.3 billion shots next year.

The bloc has secured contracts with a range of drugmakers besides Pfizer, including Moderna and AstraZeneca , for a total of more than two billion vaccine doses and has set a goal for all adults to be inoculated during 2021.

With surveys suggesting high levels of hesitancy towards the vaccine from France to Poland, leaders of the 27-country European Union are promoting it as the best chance of getting back to something like normal life.

"We have a new weapon against the virus: the vaccine," tweeted French President Emmanuel Macron, who tested positive for the coronavirus this month and left quarantine on Christmas Eve.

"We must stand firm, once more."

Distribution of the shot presents tough challenges as the vaccine uses new mRNA technology and must be stored at about -70 degrees.

In Germany, the campaign faced delays in several cities after a temperature tracker showed about 1000 shots may not have been kept cold enough during transit.

Authorities in Bavaria's Upper Franconia region, one area that had been affected, later said BioNTech had cleared the vaccines.

The Pfizer shots being used in Europe were shipped from its factory in Puurs, Belgium, in specially designed containers filled with dry ice.

They can be stored for up to six months at Antarctic winter temperatures or for five days at 2C to 8C, a type of refrigeration commonly available at hospitals.

In Italy, solar-powered healthcare pavilions designed to look like five-petalled primrose flowers - a symbol of spring - sprouted in town squares as the vaccination drive began.

Portugal has been establishing separate cold storage units for its Atlantic archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores.

The vaccination drive is all the more urgent because of concern around new variants of the virus linked to case suges in Britain and South Africa.

Cases have been detected in Australia, Hong Kong and in Europe, mostly recently in Sweden, France, Norway and Portugal's Madeira.