Germany and Hungary have begun administering their first coronavirus vaccine jabs just hours after receiving their first shipments, upsetting the European Union’s plans for a co-ordinated rollout on Sunday across the bloc’s 27 nations.
Tobias Krueger, the operator of a nursing home where immunisations began on Saturday in Halberstadt, in the north-eastern German region of Saxony-Anhalt, said: “Every day that we wait is one day too many.”
The first person at the home to be immunised with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 101-year-old Edith Kwoizalla, the dpa news agency reported.
Mr Krueger said 40 of the home’s 59 residents wanted the jab along with 10 of around 40 workers. He was among those immunised, but added: “I also understand the concerns.”
In Hungary, health care workers were vaccinated at the Southern Pest Central Hospital in Budapest, while authorities in Slovakia also planned to begin administering their first doses on Saturday evening.
The first shipments of the vaccine arrived at hospitals across the EU in super-cold containers late on Friday and early on Saturday after being sent from a manufacturing centre in Belgium before Christmas.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen released a video celebrating the vaccine rollout, calling it “a touching moment of unity”.
She said: “Today, we start turning the page on a difficult year. The Covid-19 vaccine has been delivered to all EU countries. Vaccination will begin tomorrow across the EU.”
The rollout marks a moment of hope for a region that includes some of the world’s earliest and worst-hit virus hot spots – Italy and Spain – and others like the Czech Republic, which were spared early on, only to see their health care systems approach breaking point in the autumn.
Altogether, the EU’s 27 nations have recorded at least 16 million coronavirus infections and more than 336,000 deaths – numbers that experts agree understate the true toll of the pandemic due to missed cases and limited testing.
Still, the vaccine rollout helps the bloc project a sense of unity in a complex life-saving mission after it faced a year of difficulties in negotiating a post-Brexit trade deal.
It also boosts EU politicians who were frustrated after the UK, US and Canada began their vaccination programmes with the same German-developed jab earlier this month.
German health minister Jens Spahn said: “It’s here, the good news at Christmas.
“This vaccine is the decisive key to end this pandemic … it is the key to getting our lives back.”
The first shipments were limited to just under 10,000 doses in most countries, with the mass vaccinations expected to begin only in January.
Each country is deciding on its own who will get the first injections — but they are all putting the most vulnerable first.
In Hungary, the first shipment of 9,750 doses — enough to vaccinate 4,875 people, since two doses are needed per person — arrived by truck early on Saturday and were taken to the South Pest Central Hospital in Budapest.
The government said four other hospitals, two in Budapest and two others in the eastern cities of Debrecen and Nyiregyhaza, would also receive vaccines from the initial shipment.
French authorities said they will prioritise the elderly, based on the virus’s deadly impact on older people in previous virus surges.
The French medical safety agency will monitor the vaccine rollout for any potential problems.
Germany, where the pandemic has cost more than 30,000 lives, was beginning with those over 80 and people who take care of vulnerable groups.
Spanish authorities said the first batch of the vaccine arrived in the central city of Guadalajara, where the first jabs will be administered on Sunday morning at a nursing home.
In Italy, which has Europe’s worst virus toll at more than 71,000 dead, a nurse in Rome’s Spallanzani Hospital, the main infectious diseases facility in the capital, will be the first in the country to receive the vaccine, followed by other health personnel.
In Poland, the first two people to be vaccinated on Sunday will be a nurse and a doctor at the interior Ministry hospital in Warsaw, followed by medical personnel in dozens of other hospitals. Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki called it the patriotic duty of Poles to get vaccinated — a message directed at a society where there is a high degree of vaccine hesitancy born from a general distrust of authorities.
In Bulgaria, where fears about vaccines also run high, the first person to get the jab will be health minister Kostadin Angelov, who has promised an aggressive campaign to promote its benefits.
In Croatia, where the first batch of 9,750 vaccines arrived early on Saturday, a nursing home resident in Zagreb, the capital, will be the first to receive the vaccine on Sunday morning, according to state HRT TV.
Authorities also planned to involve celebrities and other public figures in a pro-vaccination campaign.
“We have been waiting for this for a year now,” Romanian prime minister Florin Catu said on Saturday after the first batch of the vaccine arrived at a military-run storage facility.
The vaccinations begin as the first cases of a new virus variant that has been spreading in the UK have been detected in France and Spain.
The new variant, which British authorities said is much more easily transmitted, has caused European countries, the United States and China to put new restrictions on travel for people from the UK.
A French man living in England arrived in France on December 19 and tested positive for the new variant on Friday, the French public health agency said. He has no symptoms and is isolating in his home in the central city of Tours.
Health authorities in Madrid said they had confirmed the UK variant in four people, all of whom are in good health. Regional health chief Enrique Ruiz Escudero said the new strain had arrived when an infected person flew into Madrid’s airport.
The German pharmaceutical company BioNTech is confident that its coronavirus vaccine works against the new variant, but said further studies are needed to be completely certain.