A 78-year-old former French housekeeper, a 96-year-old Spaniard in a retirement home and a 29-year-old Italian nurse became among the first people in the EU to receive the BioNTech / Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, as a new, more infectious strain of the virus spreads through the block.
On Sunday, as part of coordinated actions, countries like France, Germany, Italy and Spain began immunizing elderly and at-risk people as well as medical and primary care workers, all by warning that in the immediate term, restrictions are likely to be tightened rather than relaxed.
France launched its vaccination program for elderly patients and medical staff in Sevran near Paris on Sunday morning – the first to receive the injection was Mauricette, a 78-year-old retired housekeeper – who will be followed by a geriatric service in Dijon in Burgundy in the afternoon.
Other vaccinated on Sunday included Araceli Rosario Hidalgo, 96, in a care home in Guadalajara, who became the first to receive the injection in Spain, and Claudia Alivernini, a Rome-based nurse, the first person in Italy to receive the jab.
In Germany, Edith Kwoizalla, a 101-year-old woman, had already been vaccinated on Saturday in the state of Saxony-Anhalt – leading the national health ministry to complain that the decision of regional authorities to start the beatings a day earlier undermined coordinated European co-deployment.
Vaccination campaign started after EU medicines regulator approved the BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine, the first Covid-19 vaccine to get the green light, Monday. UK and US regulators have also cleared the vaccine and started rolling out this month.
The EU has ordered 300 million doses of the BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine – enough for 150 million people, as two doses are needed for each person, along with hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines that have not yet been approved, including those manufactured by AstraZeneca, Sanofi-GSK, Johnson & Johnson, CureVac and Moderna.
“If you had told me six months ago that it would happen so quickly, I would not have believed it,” said Olivier Véran, French Minister of Health, in Le Journal du Dimanche. But he also warned that the French government could not rule out a third national lockdown to slow infections and called on people not to celebrate New Year’s Eve. German authorities have issued similar warnings, calling on citizens to s ” refrain from the tradition of setting off fireworks to avoid large street gatherings and cluttering hospitals with injuries.
France, like Germany and Italy, has already detected a case of the new, highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus which has spread to parts of southern England and has led several countries to restrict or ban travel with the United Kingdom. Spain said on Saturday it had identified four cases, all of whom had arrived from Britain.
The new variant has also been detected in other countries, including Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided on a third national lockdown from Sunday evening. Israeli residents will be restricted to less than one kilometer from their homes, but schools up to the fourth and after the tenth will remain open.
There is not yet definitive evidence that the new vaccines offer protection against the new variant. But experts argue that this is very likely to happen, because the part of the virus targeted by jabs, the so-called spike protein, probably hasn’t changed.
However, scientists have also warned that vaccination campaigns and lockdowns are likely to inflict “evolutionary pressure” on the virus in the long term, meaning that adjustments to highly effective vaccines will always be necessary. Health authorities have already estimated that vaccination campaigns would likely be necessary each year to provide lasting protection against future epidemics.
There are also questions about how many citizens will ultimately agree to the vaccination. France is one of the most skeptical countries in the world on vaccines. In a 2018 study, one in three people disagreed that vaccines were safe, the highest proportion of any country. In Germany, according to a YouGov poll, around two-thirds of people are ready to be vaccinated, while around 19% are against a vaccination and 16% are undecided. Of those who said they were ready to be vaccinated, 33% said they would take the vaccine after waiting to see the impact on those first vaccinated.
But Jens Spahn, Minister of Health, hailed the vaccine as a national achievement. “The vaccine was developed by BioNTech, a German company,” he said. “This vaccine, made in Germany, is synonymous with hope for us and for the world.”
Additional reporting by Donato Paolo Mancini, Davide Ghiglione in Rome and Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv