Vaccination begins for 450 million in Europe as mutated coronavirus strain spreads

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Mass vaccination programs began to be rolled out across Europe on Sunday after several countries reported cases of a more contagious variant of coronavirus.

On what some have dubbed "V-Day," Germany, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain began inoculations, starting out with health workers and those most at risk of contracting the disease.

The coordinated vaccination campaign of unprecedented scale in the European Union, home to almost 450 million people is a crucial step in curbing the global pandemic.

In Italy, the first doses of vaccine developed by American drugmaker Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech were administered to five health workers at Rome's Lazzaro Spallanzani National Institute for Infectious Diseases, which has been on the forefront of the fight against Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic.

“Today is finally a good day,” the country’s virus czar Domenico Arcuri told a news conference. “We see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

But he warned that people should "continue to be prudent, cautious and responsible," as Italy, which has recorded Europe's highest number of deaths with 72,000, still had a long road ahead.

A total of 9750 doses of the vaccine, which cleared regulatory hurdles in Europe earlier this week, have arrived in the country so far to be distributed across its 20 regions, the country's health ministry said.

Altogether, the E.U.’s 27 nations have recorded nearly 15 million coronavirus infections and more than 353,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. More than 1.7 million have died worldwide.

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Each E.U. country will make their own decision on who gets the first shots, with most vowing to put the elderly and residents in nursing homes first.

France also started to administer the vaccine on Sunday. The country's Health Ministry said it had ordered almost 68 million doses of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine from the E.U., which are to be delivered between now and July.

A day before the vaccination campaign officially started in Germany, a small number of people at a care home for the elderly were inoculated in a nursing home in the town of Halberstadt on Saturday.

Edith Kwoizalla, aged 101, recieved the first dose.

The federal government is planning to distribute more than 1.3 million vaccine doses to local health authorities by the end of this year, Germany's Health Minister Jens Spahn tweeted earlier this week.

Hungary and Slovakia began vaccinating people on Saturday, a day ahead of the general European rollout, while in Czech Republic, Prime Minister Andrej Babis became the first person in the country to be given the vaccine on Sunday.

Image: Czech Republic Begins Rollout of Covid-19 Vaccine (Gabriel Kuchta / Getty Images)
Image: Czech Republic Begins Rollout of Covid-19 Vaccine (Gabriel Kuchta / Getty Images)

The first cases of a new virus variant that British authorities said could be 70 percent more transmissible after it was discovered in the U.K., were detected in France, Ireland and Sweden over the weekend.

Fears over the new strain led China's aviation regulator to suspend flights to and from the U.K on Sunday until at least Jan. 10. More than 40 countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Ireland and Japan have also placed restrictions on travel from Britain.

BioNTech has said it’s confident that its coronavirus vaccine works against the new U.K. variant, but added that further studies are needed to be completely certain.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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