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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
© 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 mass COVID-19 vaccination drive on Sunday with pensioners and medics lining up to get the first shots to see off a 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 have a vaccine at her care home in Guadalajara near the capital Madrid. “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 at the head of the queue for the shot developed by Pfizer (NYSE:) and BioNTech.

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

The region of 450 million people is trying to catch up with the United States and Britain which have already started vaccinations using the Pfizer shot.

The EU is due to receive 12.5 million doses of the shot by the end of the year, enough to vaccinate 6.25 million people based on the two-dose regimen. The companies are scrambling to meet global demand and aim to make 1.3 billion shots next year.

The bloc has secured contracts with a range of drugmakers besides Pfizer including Moderna (NASDAQ:) and AstraZeneca (NASDAQ:), for a total of more than two billion vaccine doses and has set a goal for all adults to be inoculated during 2021.

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 have a new weapon against the virus: the vaccine. We must stand firm, once more,” tweeted French President Emmanuel Macron, who tested positive for the coronavirus this month and left quarantine on Christmas Eve.

“Completely painless,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos said after getting his vaccination in a hospital in Athens.

COOLING CONCERNS

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

In Germany, the campaign faced delays in several cities after a temperature tracker showed that about 1,000 shots may not have been kept cold enough during transit.

The cities of Lichtenfels, Coburg, Kronach, Kulmbach, Hof, Bayreuth and Wunsiedel in the state of Bavaria are now waiting to hear back from BioNTech on whether the vaccine can still be used, a spokesman for the Lichtenfels district said.

BioNTech was not immediately available for comment. Pfizer referred Reuters to its German partner for comment on the issue.

The Pfizer shots being used in Europe were shipped from its factory in Puurs, Belgium, in specially designed containers filled with dry ice. They can be stored for up to six months at Antarctic winter temperatures, or for five days at 2C to 8C, a type of refrigeration commonly available at hospitals.

In Italy, temporary solar-powered healthcare pavilions designed to look like five-petalled primrose flowers – a symbol of spring – sprouted in town squares as the vaccination drive kicked off on Sunday.

Portugal has been establishing separate cold storage units for its Atlantic archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores.

At the Santa Maria hospital in Portugal’s capital Lisbon, Pedro Pires waited for a shot with other nurses at the end of a 10-hour overnight shift. “It has been tiring … a lot of work,” he told Reuters.

Branka Anicic, an 81-year-old resident of a care home in Zagreb, became the first person to get a shot in Croatia. “I’m happy I will now be able to see my great-grandchildren,” she said.

“It will change the lives of everyone in the world,” said an elderly passerby in Paris who gave her name as Anaik.

German pilot Samy Kramer celebrated the vaccination campaign by tracing out a giant syringe in the sky. He flew 200 km (125 miles), following a syringe-shaped route that showed up on internet site flightradar24.

‘FIRST MAN ON THE MOON’

The vaccination drive is all the more urgent because of the concern around new variants of the virus linked to a rapid expansion of cases in Britain and South Africa. [nL8N2J42MB]

“We know that the pandemic won’t just disappear as of today, but the vaccine is the beginning of the victory over the pandemic, the vaccine is a ‘game changer’. We have always know that, and today is the first day of this new phase,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

Over the past week, cases of the UK variant have been detected in Australia, Hong Kong and in several European countries, mostly recently Sweden, France and Portugal’s island of Madeira. So far, scientists say there is no evidence to suggest the vaccines developed will be any less effective against the new variants.

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.

Beyond hospitals and care homes, sports halls and convention centres left vacant by lockdown restrictions will become venues for mass inoculations.

Vaccinations also started in Norway, which is not a member of the bloc but part of the EU’s drive.

“I feel like a historical figure … almost like the first man on the Moon,” said care home resident Svein Andersen, 67, as he received the country’s first shot in the capital Oslo.

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 administering shots 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 were inoculated a day early too.

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

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