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The European Union began a mass vaccination campaign on Sunday to eventually inoculate some 450 million people in 27 member-states against COVID-19.
EU leaders have negotiated contracts for more than 2 billion vaccine doses from various suppliers. The first 200 million doses are of the vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech, which was co-developed by a husband-and-wife team in Mainz, Germany.
In Greece, the first recipient was Efstathia Kampisiouli, an ICU nurse in Athens. Greek television stations broadcast the vaccination. Kampisiouli, clad in blue scrubs and a mask, gave a thumbs-up as a masked colleague sank a needle into her arm. Everyone clapped.
A nursing home resident followed, then Greek politicians, including Greek president Katerina Sakellaropoulou.
“Science has given us the best gift this Christmas,” she told reporters.
Similar scenes were playing out across the EU, where more than 350,000 people have died of COVID-19. The hardest-hit country has been Italy, which has recorded more than 70,000 coronavirus deaths. Three healthcare workers were the first to receive the vaccine there. Italy’s foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, urged Italians to get vaccinated.
“The covid vaccine is the only weapon we have to stop the virus,” Di Maio wrote on Facebook. “Slowly our freedom will return.”
The European Medicines Agency, based in the Netherlands, green-lit the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on December 21. The first batch of shots were delivered on Saturday.
Though the vaccine was developed in Germany, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, the United States, the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia all received it before the EU.
The German magazine Der Spiegel accused the EU of dragging its feet and haggling over prices. EMA director Emer Cooke told Euronews that the agency was doing its due diligence to shield taxpayers from liability and “to make sure we have not missed anything.”
EU leaders wanted all 27 member-states to start vaccinations on Sunday as a way to show unity. In a tweet on Saturday, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the synchronized rollout “a European success story.”
But some countries couldn’t wait. On Saturday, nursing home residents in northeast Germany were immunized — including 101-year-old Gertrude Haase. Hungary and Slovakia also started a day early.
In the Netherlands, logistical and bureaucratic issues have delayed the start of vaccinations until January 8.
The EU hopes to vaccinate residents of all 27 member-states by the end of next year. Brussels has also secured doses of the vaccine for non-EU countries — including Iceland and Norway. EU contributions to the international COVAX vaccine initiative will also mean that Kosovo — one of the poorest countries in Europe — will receive at least 300,000 COVID vaccine doses.
The start of the EU’s vaccine rollout comes at a time when a more infectious COVID-19 variant has been spreading across the U.K., which officially leaves the EU at midnight on December 31. That strain has also been detected in several EU countries, including Ireland, France and Sweden. Vaccine developers, including BioNTech’s CEO Ugur Sahin, say they expect their shots to work against coronavirus mutations.