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COVID-19 vaccinations: UK races ahead while much of Europe awaits first doses

The World Health Organization’s Special Envoy on COVID-19 has called on the UK to give vaccines to other countries once priority groups have been inoculated.

“I think we should,” Dr David Nabarro, who is British, said on Sunday when questioned over what should happen after those most at risk and the over-50s had been vaccinated.

“It’s really a question of what makes sense economically, what makes sense for society and how we’ll want to be remembered in 10 or 20 years’ time,” he told Sky News.

Government figures updated on Saturday showed that more than 11.4 million people in the UK had received a first vaccination dose, while more than half a million have had a second jab as well.

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said that at one stage on Saturday, health service workers were administering jabs at a rate of almost 1,000 a minute.

The UK is aiming to give all over-70s and frontline health care workers their first dose by February 15.

EU states receive first AstraZeneca doses

While the UK ponders a possible vaccine surplus, many people in Europe are wondering when they are going to receive their first doses.

On Sunday, Spain became the latest country to confirm it had received its first doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University COVID-19 vaccine, for distribution starting Monday.

People in Bulgaria began receiving their first jabs after the country received 28,800 doses on Saturday. The Balkan country of seven million bet heavily on the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is relatively cheap and easy to store and use.

Several other EU states — France, Italy, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic — received their first shipments on Saturday.

It gives France a third vaccine — after the Pfizer-BionTech and Moderna jabs — and helps bolster a promise by President Macron that all French who wish will be vaccinated by summer’s end. So far, about 1.8 million people have been inoculated.

In Germany, where 2.1 million people have been vaccinated, the first batches of the newly authorised AstraZeneca vaccine were due to be delivered to the country’s 16 states on Friday.

Health minister Jens Spahn said the addition of a third vaccine would “make a real difference” to Germany’s immunisation campaign, which as elsewhere in Europe has so far been sluggish compared to the United States or Britain.

How the UK has raced ahead…

The UK has managed to avoid some of the vaccine supply problems the 27-nation EU has faced — as when AstraZeneca said it hit a production issue.

While the British government invested aggressively and early in coronavirus vaccinations, the EU has taken a slower, more cautious approach.

For both the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BionTech vaccines, the UK announced deals more than three months before the EU did the same. For other vaccines too, the EU has either ordered after the UK or is still in negotiations.

When the EU had a major row with AstraZeneca last month over a huge shortfall in planned supplies, CEO Pascal Soriot pointed out that “the UK contract was signed three months before the European vaccine deal. So with the UK we have had an extra three months to fix all the glitches”.

The UK also moved in September to order millions of doses of another vaccine candidate, from French pharmaceutical company Valneva. It followed up with another order this month.

Despite exploratory talks, no contract with the EU has been signed to date. Valneva President Franck Grimaud told the AP that Britain will receive vaccine doses earlier because it signed first.

…And why the EU has been slower

The European Commission, which took charge of vaccine procurement for the bloc, did get competitive prices, but it took time — and the difference of a few months has cost it dearly.

The EU was also slower to approve vaccines, opting for a longer process that gave the shots fuller scrutiny from the European Medicines Agency (EMA), rather than emergency authorisation, to ensure greater public confidence, a decision it still defends.

As a result, Britain started giving out vaccine shots on December 8, while the EU did not get going until December 27. It has not caught up since.

The EU’s deliberate approach, however, may have prevented other problems. Without a joint strategy, smaller and poorer EU nations could have struggled to secure and pay for vaccines. With open borders, diverging national approaches could have led to chaos.

Despite the slow start, the pledge by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen — to have 70% of the bloc’s adults vaccinated by the end of summer — still stands.

Some EU countries still cautious over AstraZeneca

France, Germany and Sweden have decided that for now, they will only give the AstraZeneca shot to people aged 18-64, due to lack of data on older age groups. Belgium went further, restricting use to those under 55, even if it means carefully laid vaccination plans will have to be changed.

This comes even though the cautious EMA approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for use in the EU for all adults.

The WHO’s David Nabarro also praised the UK’s “bravery” in extending intervals between vaccine doses, which he said “seems to be associated with even greater protection”.

Britain’s health chief last week hailed a new study suggesting that a single dose of its AstraZeneca vaccine offers strong protection for 12 weeks against the virus, saying that supports the government’s much-debated strategy of delaying the second shot.

Some European countries have been holding back doses to make absolutely sure a person could get a second shot within the originally-recommended shorter time period, thus denying a first shot for others.

By other pandemic criteria the UK rates badly, the country with a population of 67 million having suffered 112,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest number in Europe.

Health officials in Britain are trying to contain the spread of the variant first identified in South Africa amid concerns that it is more contagious or resistant to existing vaccines.

WHO warning over vaccine nationalism

The World Health Organization’s special envoy on COVID-19 also said on Sunday that the world needs to have equal access to coronavirus vaccines, and urged richer countries to leave behind vaccine nationalism.

Dr David Nabarro told Sky News that the priority is to vaccinate first whoever is vulnerable to the virus, especially health workers and elderly people across the world, instead of aiming at inoculating individual nations.

“The world should be accessing these vaccines in an equal way,” the WHO’s David Nabarro said, adding that this was the only way to deal with a global pandemic.

“I’m really hopeful that world leaders in the coming weeks will realise that to have a few countries vaccinating a lot of people, and then poorer countries having very limited vaccines, is not really the way to go ahead — economically, socially, environmentally, and indeed morally.”