Hungary and Slovakia have stolen a march on the EU by launching COVID-19 vaccinations a day ahead of rollouts in France, Germany, Spain and other European nations as the pandemic surges across the continent.
Vaccination across the European Union, home to almost 450 million people, would be crucial towards ending the pandemic that has killed more than 1.7 million globally, crippled economies and destroyed livelihoods.
Hungary administered the Pfizer and BioNTech accine to hospital workers in Budapest on Saturday after receiving its first shipment of enough doses to inoculate 4875 people.
The first to receive the shot was Adrienne Kertesz, a doctor at Del-Pest Central Hospital.
Hungary has reported 315,362 COVID-19 cases with 8951 deaths. More than 6000 people are still in hospital, straining the central European country’s care system.
In Slovakia, Vladimir Krcmery, a member of the government’s Pandemic Commission was the first to receive the shot of the vaccine.
The Hungarian and Slovak rollout came a day before France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Portugal and Spain begin mass vaccinations.
The distribution of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, first rolled out in Britain earlier this month, presents tough challenges.
The vaccine uses new mRNA genetic technology, which means it must be stored at ultra-low temperatures of around -80 degrees.
France will start administering it on Sunday in the greater Paris area and in the Burgundy-Franche-Comte region.
“We have 19,500 doses in total, which amounts to 3900 vials. These doses will be stored in our freezer at minus 80 degrees and will be then distributed to different nursing homes and hospitals,” said Paris public hospital system official Franck Huet.
The French government is hoping to get around one million people vaccinated in nursing homes during January and February, and a further 14-15 million in the wider population between March and June.
France reported 3093 new infections over the previous 24 hours on Saturday, sharply down from the more than 20,000 cases on each of the previous two days.
Its confirmed case total stands at 2,550,864, the fifth-highest tally in the world and its death toll, 62,573, the seventh-highest.
Officials said on Friday a man who recently arrived from London had tested positive for a new variant of the virus thought to be more infectious.
In Spain, Madrid authorities said they had confirmed four cases of the new variant, as the country received its first vaccine deliveries.
“Vaccination will start tomorrow in Spain, coordinated with the rest of Europe,” Health Minister Salvador Illa wrote on Twitter. “This is the beginning of the end of the pandemic.”
Germany, meanwhile, said trucks were on their way to deliver the vaccine to care homes for the elderly.
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country rose by 14,455 to 1,627,103 on Saturday. More than 29,000 people have died, in total.
The government is planning to distribute more than 1.3 million vaccine doses to local authorities by the end of this year and about 700,000 per week from January.
In Portugal, a first batch of 10,000 shots will be delivered to five big hospitals.