AstraZeneca vaccine arrives in EU as bloc speeds up inoculation

First batches being delivered across Europe following criticism of drugmaker

epa08992081 A handout photo made available by the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force) Press Office shows the arrival in Italy of the first 249,600 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, in Pratica di Mare, near Rome, Italy, 06 February 2021. In the coming days, barring unforeseen circumstances, these doses will be distributed in the centers of administration in the various Italian regions.  EPA/AERONAUTICA MILITARE HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine has at last arrived in the EU as the bloc tries to speed up its lagging inoculation campaign.

France started administering shots on Saturday, with priority to healthcare workers, after its first batch arrived on Friday evening. Germany, Ireland, Spain and Austria will also start offering the vaccine, and Portugal will receive deliveries early next week.

The doses are transported mostly by lorry . Their arrival is a welcome development for the EU, which has spent the past few weeks in a public row with AstraZeneca over vaccine targets.

Yet governments remain worried about delays given thousands are still dying daily. They’re also sticking with lockdowns to control the spread of the virus, particularly as more contagious new variants emerge.

epa08992085 A handout photo made available by the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force) Press Office shows the arrival in Italy of the first 249,600 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, in Pratica di Mare, near Rome, Italy, 06 February 2021. In the coming days, barring unforeseen circumstances, these doses will be distributed in the centers of administration in the various Italian regions.  EPA/AERONAUTICA MILITARE HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

Germany is likely to extend its Covid-19 restrictions for another two weeks when Chancellor Angela Merkel and state government leaders meet next week, people familiar with the discussions told Bloomberg. On Friday, Greece tightened restrictions on movement and shopping.

Despite the slow start, the European Commission is sticking to a plan to have 70 per cent of the adult population vaccinated by late summer. It expects the pace will pick up rapidly in the coming months, with deliveries of at least 300 million doses in the second quarter.

Amid ongoing worry about delays, a group of EU leaders urged European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen to conclude talks with other vaccine developers, such as Novovax and Valneva. They also highlighted risks surrounding the decision of Johnson & Johnson to ship vaccines to the US for packaging.

The J&J product “may be a potential game changer due to easier storage and transport as well as requirement of only one dose,” the leaders said in the letter, obtained by Bloomberg.

AstraZeneca’s shot is the third to be cleared by the EU’s drug regulator. It approved BioNTech and Pfizer’s vaccine in December, and Moderna’s last month.

Many countries approached the AstraZeneca vaccine with caution, recommending it only for those aged under 65. But governments are still counting on it to speed up the inoculation effort.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Friday the arrival of the vaccine would double the country’s capacity. The AstraZeneca shot will initially be given primarily to healthcare workers aged 64 and younger, allowing those above 65 to be vaccinated more quickly with either of the other two.

In Vienna, the additional supply will enable the Austrian capital to administer 28,600 doses next week, twice as many as in the week of February 1.

As governments try to move on from the vaccine debacle, they also want to prevent high-profile blunders undermining public confidence. Mr Spahn emphasised that point on Friday, saying all approved products are equally good for under-65s.

“We have with all three vaccines effective tools to fight this pandemic,” he said in Berlin. “We hope and expect that even more will soon follow.”

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