For healthcare workers who have been fighting the virus with only masks and shields to protect them, the vaccines represented an emotional relief and a very public opportunity to urge people to protect themselves and others.
“Today I am here as a citizen, but above all as a nurse, to represent my category and all health workers who choose to believe in science,” said Claudia Alivernini, a 29-year-old nurse who was the first of five doctors and nurses at the Spallanzani infectious disease hospital in Rome to receive the vaccine.
Italian virus czar Domenico Arcuri said it was significant that the first doses from Italy were administered in Spallanzani, where a Chinese couple who visited Wuhan tested positive in January and became the first confirmed cases in Italy.
In a matter of weeks, northern Lombardy would become the epicenter of the outbreak in Europe and a warning of what happens when even rich countries are not prepared for a pandemic.
Lombardy still accounts for about a third of the deaths in Italy, which has the worst confirmed virus toll on the continent with nearly 72,000 deaths.
“Today is a beautiful and symbolic day: all the citizens of Europe together are beginning to receive their vaccinations, the first ray of light after a long night,” Arcuri told reporters outside the hospital.
But he warned: “We all have to remain prudent, cautious and responsible. We still have a long way to go, but we finally see a little light ”.
The vaccines, developed by Germany’s BioNTech and US drugmaker Pfizer, began arriving in super-cold containers at EU hospitals on Friday from a factory in Belgium.
Each country only received a fraction of the doses needed, less than 10,000 in the first batches, and a larger launch was expected in January, when more vaccines will be available.
At the Los Olmos nursing home in the Spanish city of Guadalajara, northeast of Madrid, Araceli Hidalgo, a 96-year-old resident and a caregiver, were the first Spaniards to receive the vaccine.
Like Italy, Spain has been one of the worst affected countries in Europe, and nursing homes are a major source of infection.
“Let’s see if we can all behave and make this virus go away,” Hidalgo said after receiving his injection.
The Los Olmos home suffered two confirmed deaths from COVID-19 and another 11 deaths among residents with symptoms that were never evaluated during the chaotic initial months.
“What we want is for as many people as possible to be vaccinated,” said Mónica Tapias, the 48-year-old domestic worker.
“We have lost some residents here to COVID and that has been very sad. Let’s see if this can finally end this. “
The Czech Republic escaped the worst of the pandemic in the spring only to see its health care system on the brink of collapse in the fall. In Prague, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis was shot at dawn on Sunday and said: “There is nothing to worry about.” Sitting next to him was World War II veteran Emilie Repikova, who also received the injection.
In total, the 27 nations of the EU have recorded at least 16 million coronavirus infections and more than 336,000 deaths – huge numbers that experts say still underestimate the true number of victims of the pandemic due to missing cases and limited testing. .
Everyone receiving injections will need to return in three weeks for a second dose.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen posted a video on Saturday celebrating the launch of the vaccine, calling it “a moving moment of unity.”
The vaccination campaign should ease the frustrations that were building, especially in Germany, as Britain, Canada and the United States began their inoculation programs with the same vaccine weeks earlier.
The operator of a German nursing home where dozens of people were vaccinated on Saturday, including a 101-year-old woman, said “every day we wait is one day too many.”
Each EU country decided on its own who will get the first vaccinations, with most vowing to put healthcare workers and residents of nursing homes first.
EU leaders are counting on the launch of the vaccine to help the bloc project a sense of unity in a complex life-saving mission after it faced a difficult year in negotiating a post-Brexit trade deal with Britain.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called the vaccines, which were developed in record time, a “game changer”.
“We know that today is not the end of the pandemic, but it is the beginning of victory,” he said.
Among the politicians who received injections on Sunday to promote wider acceptance of the vaccines was Bulgarian Health Minister Kostadin Angelov.
“I can’t wait to see my 70-year-old father without fear of infecting him,” Angelov said.
The new variant, which according to the British authorities is transmitted much more easily, has caused many countries to impose new restrictions on those who come from Great Britain.
Japan announced that it would temporarily ban all non-resident foreigners until January 31 as a precaution against the new UK variant.
Germany’s BioNTech has said it is confident its vaccine will work against the new UK variant, but added that more studies are needed to be completely sure.
The European Medicines Agency will consider on January 6 to approve another coronavirus vaccine made by Moderna, which is already being used in the United States.
Andreas Raouna, 84, said he was honored to be among the first to receive the vaccine in Cyprus and criticized vaccine skeptics for being “in league with a killer.”
While there may be some side effects, he said, “if the coronavirus hits him, it will be the end of it.”