EU embarks on deployment of high-stakes coronavirus vaccine

Coronavirus testing at the Magic Mirrors theater which was converted to a coronavirus screening center in Le Havre, France on. December 14, 2020 (Andrea Mantovani / The New York Times)

BRUSSELS – From Stockholm to Athens and Lisbon to Warsaw, governments of the European Union are preparing to receive a coronavirus vaccine later this week, even as cases continue to rise in parts of the continent.

The bloc officially approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Monday, triggering a logistical marathon that most authorities in the region had not had to face before.

The process of buying, approving and distributing the pictures across the European Union has been complex and politically charged, and the stakes could not be higher. The second wave of the pandemic is still raging in parts of the region, most Europeans are spending the holidays in some type of lockdown and the bloc’s economies are in tatters.

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To complicate matters further, a highly contagious variant in England led many European countries over the weekend to block travelers from Britain, although scientists say it has already reached the continent.

If the immunization mission is successful, it can strengthen the powers of the European Union, turning its administration into a veritable force with executive powers and capacities that can perform important tasks on behalf of its members. Otherwise, failure can spread acrimony and disaffection.

The European Medicines Agency, the bloc’s pharmaceutical authority, gave its approval on Monday, after coming under close scrutiny over the pace at which it reviewed the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Britain granted emergency vaccine approval weeks ago and then started rolling out its inoculation program, with the United States not far behind.

Eventually, the European agency decided to speed up the process, pushing forward an approval meeting that had been set for December 29. The United States has also approved a Moderna vaccine, but the European agency will not process the authorization request. gunfire from this company until January 6.

The agency’s clearance for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was followed hours later by the final step, when the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, gave its approval, giving the green light to Pfizer to begin distributing vaccines in the region. .

“As we promised, this vaccine will be available to all European countries at the same time, under the same conditions,” said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. “Let me say how proud I am that the first COVID vaccine available in Europe is a true product of European innovation.”

The commission shifts responsibility for this first load as the cargo leaves Pfizer factories in Puurs, Belgium, and Mainz, Germany, to European capitals, likely Thursday. The company, which declined to answer detailed questions about transport plans for security reasons, will play an active role in transporting and storing vaccines in each country.

From that point on, each of the bloc’s 27 member governments will be responsible for delivering the vaccine to its population in a way that matches the needs, priorities and capacities of each country.

The first Europeans should be vaccinated on December 27, 28 and 29.

The pressure to get it right, and to do it quickly, has increased as the European Union and its members attempt a collective approach in a critical node in the fight against the pandemic. Most countries have been more nationalistic.

The European approach started with the decision this summer to pool negotiating capital and empower the European Commission and a board of representatives from each member country to strike deals with pharmaceutical companies working on vaccines. .

There have been criticisms that the European Union, like the United States, did not order enough doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine when given the opportunity. But from a financial standpoint, it seems the approach has benefited the bloc: it pays less than the United States for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

In Germany, the bloc’s largest economy and home to BioNTech, the decision to allow the European Commission to negotiate a deal has drawn criticism, with some saying the country would have been better off going it alone. But most of the bloc’s members are medium-sized or smaller countries, and for them the approach made sense. (As the Brexit countdown draws to a close, some may also see a powerful political message here, with the bloc showing there is strength in unity.)

Yet if the process has been unified at this point, the deployment will now start to look very different from country to country.

Germany plans to start vaccinating people over the age of 80 and others living in nursing homes on December 27, a day or two after the expected arrival of the 400,000 doses it has ordered. It is expected that the first vaccinations will be carried out by teams of doctors visiting nursing homes. During the first weeks of January, hundreds of vaccination centers set up in halls, gymnasiums and theaters will open.

For many Germans, it was difficult to see a vaccine developed by their own citizens gain approval and begin to be administered in Britain weeks before it arrived in their own country.

But the country’s health minister, Jens Spahn, fended off criticism.

“It gives a lot of credit to the trust and responsibility across Europe that we act together,” Spahn told reporters last week. “’We’ are stronger than ‘me’,” he said.

France, the region’s second-largest economy, will also start the blows by the end of the month. But authorities face an additional challenge: vaccine skepticism. A recent poll indicated that only 41% of those surveyed planned to receive the injections.

Italy and Spain, two of the worst-affected European countries, are also making rapid progress, with at least a few vaccinations of the most vulnerable by the end of the month. The big one will start in January.

Health officials across Europe have not lost sight of the fact that early vaccinations can have inordinate symbolic value in the campaign to rally weary and sometimes skeptical populations.

In Greece, the vaccination campaign was called Operation Freedom by a government eager to win over reluctant citizens. A recent opinion poll suggested that 3 in 10 Greeks were not planning to get the vaccine, citing concerns about efficacy and safety, while another 3 in 10 were skeptical.

In Italy, Alessio D’Amato, the main health official in the Lazio region, which includes Rome, told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that the first person to be vaccinated there “will be a nurse and will be a woman. – just like in New York. “

To date, no country in the EU has announced plans to make the vaccine mandatory.

And while there is pressure to vaccinate as many people as possible in the shortest possible time, experts warn authorities should not act too fast, especially if they are not confident in their country’s infrastructure. .

“The best approach, especially if there are logistical problems, is to go slowly and steadily,” said Professor Jean-Michel Dogné from the University of Namur, Belgium, adviser to the European Medicines Agency .

“Nothing worse can happen than to vaccinate someone with a vaccine the quality of which we cannot guarantee,” he said.

The biggest challenge for any country, Dogné said, will be tracking the temperature of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine throughout its journey from the factory to the injection.

The vaccination campaign will begin in earnest in the European Union in the first quarter of 2021, and most governments hope to have a large part of their population vaccinated by June.

Pfizer and the European Commission say they are working on a specific schedule for future vaccine deliveries but did not give details. Increasing production is a challenge for the company, which serves several customers, and European governments have expressed concern that supply becomes a trickle.

Dogné said it was all the more reason to get it right and to make sure that none of the precious doses were wasted.

“This is an unprecedented operation,” he said. “We must not waste a drop.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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