EU leaders have rushed to quell mounting disquiet over the slow pace of national vaccination campaigns, promising that everyone who wants to be inoculated will be.
Meanwhile the founder of BioNTech, the German company that pioneered the first vaccine to be approved in Europe, said the EU had been too slow to secure stocks of the jab, and warned of possible bottlenecks with supplies amid surging global demand.
France has been under the most pressure to accelerate its immunisation campaign, with only a few hundred doses administered so far, compared to tens of thousands in Germany and nearly a million in the UK. It takes two shots of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine for an individual to be fully protected.
Doctors and opposition politicians have accused the French government of being too cautious in its approach, partly to accommodate vaccine sceptics, and being ill-prepared for the logistical challenges of the rollout. President Emmanuel Macron addressed those concerns head on in his televised New Year’s address, saying that he would “not let an unjustified slowness take hold, because of bad reasons”.
“Every French person who wants to must be able to get vaccinated,” he added.
After initially deciding to concentrate on old people in care homes and not vaccinate nursing and medical staff until the end of February, France announced that medical staff aged 50 and older would receive the shots from Monday. France will also open its first urban immunisation centres before the start of February. “Rest assured, the vaccination campaign will soon pick up speed,” health minister Olivier Véran said.
Meanwhile Uğur Şahin, chief executive of BioNTech, the German vaccine-maker, criticised the EU’s strategy on procuring vaccines, saying it had been too hesitant. “The process in Europe certainly wasn’t as fast and straightforward as in other countries,” Mr Şahin told Der Spiegel. “Partly because the European Union isn’t directly authorised, and the member states have a say. In a negotiation . . . it can take time.”
He said that the EU had also bet on other producers who couldn’t deliver as quickly as BioNTech and Pfizer had. “Clearly there was this impression that ‘we’ll get enough, and things won’t be so bad, and we have it under control’,” Mr Şahin said.
He also warned of pressure on supplies of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. “It doesn’t look so rosy right now, a gap has emerged, because there’s a lack of other vaccines that have received approval and we have to fill this gap with our vaccine,” he said. The US has ordered 200m doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, while the EU has secured 300m.
It is not only France that is being criticised for its slow rollout. Though the US has got off to a quicker start than France or Germany, it fell far short of its target of vaccinating 20m people by the end of December, with only 2.8m receiving the jab last month.
Some 170,000 people in long-term care facilities received the shot as of December 30, although 2.2m doses have been distributed for residents, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the UK — the first country to roll out a mass immunisation campaign using the BioNTech/Pfizer jab — there have also been hiccups. Almost 945,000 people have received the shot since December 8. But doubts have been creeping in as to whether the government can meet its pledge to inoculate all Britons over 50, and younger people whose health is especially vulnerable, by the end of March.
UK ministers hailed the approval this week of the country’s homegrown vaccine, developed by Oxford university and AstraZeneca, as “a game-changer.” However just 530,000 doses will be available on Monday when vaccinations with the new product begin.
This is partly because each batch of doses has to be checked for safety and quality before it can be released. Health officials say the rate-limiting factor will be how quickly manufacturers can supply the doses.
The UK’s chief medical officers warned this week that the availability of Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be a problem for “several months”. “Vaccine shortage is a reality that cannot be wished away,” they said.
In Germany, too, officials have come under pressure over the slow pace of the vaccination campaign. Speaking to reporters earlier this week, Jens Spahn, health minister, urged people to be patient, saying supplies of the vaccine were “tight, throughout the world”. But he insisted the situation would ease as more vaccines receive regulatory approval.
Lars Klingbeil, secretary-general of the Social Democrats, blamed Mr Spahn for the sluggish start of the rollout. “The minister had months to prepare the planned start of vaccinations,” he told the Rheinische Post. “And he also received all the powers he needed to do it.”
Additional reporting by Sara Germano, Donato Mancini and Davide Ghiglione