The first shipments of the vaccine arrived at EU hospitals in super-cold containers on Friday night and early Saturday after being shipped from a manufacturing facility in Belgium before Christmas.
It was not immediately clear why the Hungarian authorities began vaccinating the day before. Slovak authorities also announced that they planned to start administering their first doses on Saturday night.
The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, posted a video celebrating the launch of the vaccine, calling it “a moving moment of unity.”
“Today we start to turn the page in a difficult year. The COVID-19 vaccine has been delivered to all EU countries. Vaccination will start tomorrow across the EU,” he said.
“The good news is here at Christmas,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn told a news conference on Saturday. “This vaccine is the decisive key to ending this pandemic.”
“It is the key to getting our lives back,” Spahn said.
The first shipments, however, are limited to just under 10,000 doses in most countries, with mass vaccination programs expected to begin only in January. Each country decides for itself who will receive the first vaccines, but all are putting the most vulnerable first.
In Hungary, the first shipment of 9,750 doses, enough to vaccinate 4,875 people since two doses per person are needed, arrived by truck early on Saturday and was transferred to the South Pest Central Hospital in Budapest. The government said four other hospitals, two in Budapest and another two in the eastern cities of Debrecen and Nyíregyháza, would also receive vaccines from the initial shipment.
French authorities said they will prioritize older people, based on the deadly impact of the virus on older people in previous virus waves in France. The French medical safety agency will monitor any potential problems.
Germany, where the pandemic has cost more than 30,000 lives, will start with those over 80 and people who serve vulnerable groups.
Spanish authorities said the first batch of the vaccine to reach the country reached the central city of Guadalajara, where the first injections will be administered Sunday morning at a nursing home.
In Italy, which has the worst number of virus deaths in Europe with more than 71,000 people, a nurse in Rome at the Spallanzani Hospital, the capital’s main infectious disease center, will be the first in the country to receive the vaccine, followed by other health personnel.
In Poland, the first two people to be vaccinated on Sunday will be a nurse and a doctor at the Interior Ministry hospital in Warsaw, the main coronavirus hospital in the capital, followed by medical staff in dozens of other hospitals.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki described it as a patriotic duty for Poles to be vaccinated, a message addressed to a society in which there is a high degree of vacillation due to a general distrust of the authorities.
In Bulgaria, where vaccinations are also high, the first person to receive the vaccine will be Health Minister Kostadin Angelov, who has promised an aggressive campaign to promote the benefits of injections.
In Croatia, where the first batch of 9,750 vaccines arrived early on Saturday, a resident of a nursing home in Zagreb, the capital, will be the first to receive the vaccine on Sunday morning, according to state television HRT. Authorities also planned to involve celebrities and other public figures in a campaign for vaccination.
“We have been waiting for this for a year,” Romanian Prime Minister Florin Catu said on Saturday after the first batch of the vaccine arrived at a military-run storage facility there.
Vaccinations begin when the first cases of a new variant of the virus that have spread in the United Kingdom have already been detected in France and Spain. The new variant, which according to the British authorities is transmitted much more easily, has caused European countries, the United States and China to impose new restrictions on the travel of people from Great Britain.
A Frenchman living in England arrived in France on December 19 and tested positive for the new variant on Friday, the French public health agency said. He has no symptoms and is isolated at his home in the central city of Tours.
Meanwhile, health authorities in the Madrid region said they had confirmed the UK variant in four people, all of whom are in good health. Regional health chief Enrique Ruiz Escudero said the new strain had arrived when an infected person flew into Madrid airport.
German pharmaceutical company BioNTech is confident that its coronavirus vaccine works against the new UK variant, but more studies are needed to be completely sure.
– Reported with Associated Press