BERLIN – Across Europe, health workers and care home residents became the first on the continent to receive vaccinations against the coronavirus on Sunday.
In what EU leaders dubbed “V-Day,” the bloc officially embarked on a coordinated mass vaccination program, starting with its most vulnerable people.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the launch “a touching moment of unity” for the 450 million people living in the European Union’s 27 member states.
In total, the EU has recorded more than 336,000 COVID-19-related deaths since the first cases were registered 11 months ago.
Across the continent, leaders echoed the historic nature of the day.
“This date will live with us forever,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte tweeted as his country – the European nation with the highest coronavirus death toll – began vaccinations.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron described the vaccine as “a new weapon against the virus.” Writing on Twitter, he stressed that though vaccination was not compulsory, residents should “trust our researchers and doctors.”
“December 27, 2020, is a historic day,” said Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz; while in Denmark, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said there was “light at the end of the tunnel after the most difficult year since World War II.”
Frederiksen, who was visibly moved by the vaccinations, told reporters it was “a huge turning point for the whole world.”
In the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Andrej Babis received his vaccination on live TV, as did 95-year-old World War II veteran Emilie Repikova.
In neighboring Germany, the EU’s most populous country, mobile teams led the vaccination effort by going to care homes to give doses to those over the age of 80.
The country has more than 400 vaccination centers in the works, but many will not be up and running for several days.
In Norway, Svein Andersen, who lives at a care home in Oslo, became the first person to be vaccinated in the country.
He compared the “historic” experience to being the first man on the moon.
In Poland, where front-line health workers are at the top of the list for the shot, Alicja Jakubowska, a head nurse at the Interior Ministry hospital in the capital Warsaw, was the first.
A nurse was also number one on the waiting list to get the shot in Greece, with broadcaster ERT transmitting the moment live from the Evangelismos hospital in central Athens.
Greek President Ekaterini Sakellaropoulou and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis were set to be vaccinated later in the day.
Care home residents and health workers were the first to get the jab on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, with President Nikos Anastasiades expected to receive it on Monday.
The first vaccinations in Spain – administered to residents and staff of a care home – were also broadcast live on television.
Among them was a 96-year-old resident named Araceli, who appealed to Spaniards to “behave,” get vaccinated and “make the virus go away.”
In Lithuania, the first of the three Baltic states to start vaccinations, nurse Jolanta Litviniene told broadcasters the vaccine felt like a kind of Christmas miracle that would ease the psychological burden of her work.
Estonia also began vaccinations of medical workers later on Sunday, along with Romania and Finland.
The EU has approved the two-dose vaccine jointly developed by the small German firm BioNTech and U.S. pharma giant Pfizer, which a large-scale clinical trial showed has an efficacy of 95% in preventing COVID-19.
Politicians and health experts warn that it will be months until vaccines will be widely available enough to provide shots to everyone who wants to be vaccinated.
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was shipped across the region from Pfizer’s manufacturing site in Belgium, often accompanied by police or military escorts.
The logistics are seen as a challenge because the vaccine has to be kept at minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit along the supply chain.
The first vaccine shipments reached countries across the EU on Saturday, when a few individuals received their shot early in Hungary, Slovakia and Germany.
Ireland and the Netherlands are among the EU nations that received shipments but won’t start their vaccination programs this weekend. Ireland plans to start on Wednesday and the Netherlands on Jan. 8.
The European Commission says it has secured contracts for more than 2 billion vaccine doses from an array of drug makers.
Only the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has been approved so far. It requires two doses given about three weeks apart.
The EU’s health regulator will decide on whether to recommend authorizing the vaccine produced by U.S. biotech firm Moderna by Jan. 6.
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