Europe launches an unparalleled cross-border vaccination program on Sunday as part of efforts to end a COVID-19 pandemic that has crippled economies and killed more than 1.7 million people around the world.
The region’s 450 million people have reached agreements with a number of suppliers for over two billion vaccine doses and have set a goal for all adults to be inoculated by 2021.
While Europe has some of the world’s best healthcare resources, the sheer scale of the effort means that some countries are urging retired doctors to help, while others have loosened the rules for who can give the injections.
With studies pointing to high doubts about the vaccine in countries from France to Poland, leaders of the EU’s 27 countries are promoting it as the best chance to return to something of normal life next year.
“We are starting to turn the page to a difficult year,” said Ursula von der Leyen, chair of the Brussels-based European Commission, which coordinates the program, in a tweet.
“Vaccination is the permanent way out of the pandemic.”
Today we start to turn the page to a difficult year. The # COVID19 vaccine has been delivered to all EU countries.
Vaccination starts tomorrow throughout the EU.
#Evvaccinationdays is a touching moment of unity. Vaccination is the lasting way out of the pandemic. pic.twitter.com/pYOj5vS2gV
– Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) December 26, 2020
After European governments were criticized for not cooperating to counter the spread of the virus in early 2020, the aim this time is to ensure equal access to vaccines throughout the region.
But even then, on Saturday, Hungary jumped the gun on the official rollout by starting administering shots of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech to front workers at hospitals in the capital Budapest.
Countries including France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Portugal and Spain plan to begin mass vaccinations starting with health workers on Sunday. Outside the EU, the UK, Switzerland and Serbia have already started in recent weeks.
The distribution of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot poses tough challenges. The vaccine uses new mRNA technology and must be stored at extremely low temperatures of about -80 degrees Celsius (-112 ° F).
France, which received its first delivery of the two-dose vaccine on Saturday, will begin administering it in the greater Paris area and in the Burgundy-Franche-Comte region.
However, Germany said that trucks were on their way to deliver the vaccine to the elderly care home, which is first queuing to receive the vaccine on Sunday.
In addition to hospitals and nursing homes, sports halls and congress centers that are emptied of locking measures will be places for mass vaccination.
In Italy, temporary solar-powered care pavilions will appear in squares around the country, designed to look like five-flowered primrose flowers, a symbol of spring.
In Spain, doses are delivered by air to its island regions and the North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Portugal is setting up separate refrigeration units for its Atlantic archipelagos, the Azores and Madeira.
“A window of hope has now been opened, without forgetting that it is a very difficult battle ahead,” Portuguese Health Minister Marta Temido told reporters.