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

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© Reuters. Los Olmos nursing home resident Araceli receives the first injection nationwide, with a dose of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Guadalajara

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By Isla Binnie and Giselda Vagnoni

MADRID/ROME (Reuters) – Europe launched a massive vaccination drive on Sunday with pensioners and medics lining up to take the first shots to see off the COVID-19 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 get a vaccine. She told staff at her care home in Guadalajara near Madrid she hadn’t felt a thing. “Let’s see if we can make this virus go away.”

In Italy, the first country in Europe to record significant numbers of infections, 29-year-old nurse Claudia Alivernini was one of three medical staff to receive the first shots of the vaccine developed by Pfizer (NYSE:) and BioNTech.

“It is the beginning of the end … it was an exciting, historical moment,” she said at Rome’s Spallanzani hospital.

The region of 450 million people has secured contracts with a range of suppliers for more than two billion vaccine doses and has set a goal for all adults to be inoculated during 2021.

While Europe has some of the best-resourced healthcare systems in the world, the sheer scale of the effort means some countries are calling on retired medics to help while others have loosened rules for who is allowed to give the injections.

With surveys pointing to high levels of hesitancy towards the vaccine in countries 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 next year.

“We are starting to turn the page on a difficult year,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission which is coordinating the programme, said in a tweet.

“Vaccination is the lasting way out of the pandemic.”

JUMPED THE GUN

After European governments were criticised for failing to work together to counter the spread of the virus in early 2020, the goal this time is to ensure that there is equal access to the vaccines across the region.

But even then, Hungary on Saturday jumped the gun on the official roll-out by starting to administer shots of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine to frontline workers at hospitals in the capital Budapest.

Slovakia also went ahead with some inoculations of healthcare staff on Saturday and in Germany, a small number of people at a care home for the elderly were inoculated a day early too.

“We don’t want to waste that one day that the vaccine loses shelf life. We want to use it right away,” Karsten Fischer, from the pandemic staff of the Harz district in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt told local broadcaster MDR.

The distribution of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot presents tough challenges. The vaccine uses new mRNA technology and must be stored at ultra-low temperatures of about -70 degrees Celsius (-112°F).

Beyond hospitals and care homes, sports halls and convention centres emptied by lockdown measures will become venues for mass inoculations.

In Italy, temporary solar-powered healthcare pavilions designed to look like five-petalled primrose flowers – a symbol of spring – sprung up in town squares around the country,

In Spain, doses were being delivered by air to its island territories and the North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Portugal is establishing separate cold storage units for its Atlantic archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores.

“A window of hope has now opened, without forgetting that there is a very difficult fight ahead,” Portuguese Health Minister Marta Temido told reporters.

In the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Andrej Babis was at the head of the queue. In Vienna, three women and two men over 80 got the vaccine in the presence of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

“We are at war, but our weapon has arrived and it is in these small vials,” the head of Bulgaria’s anti-virus taskforce, General Ventsislav Mutafchiiski said after getting his vaccination in Sofia.

Outside the EU, Britain, Switzerland and Serbia have already started vaccinating their citizens in recent weeks.