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EU nations kickstart mass COVID-19 vaccination programme in 'touching moment of unity'

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By Alice Tidey  & AP
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Doctor Bernhard Ellendt, left, injects the COVID-19 vaccine into a nursing home resident in Halberstadt, Germany, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020.
Doctor Bernhard Ellendt, left, injects the COVID-19 vaccine into a nursing home resident in Halberstadt, Germany, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020.   -   Copyright  Matthias Bein/dpa Via AP
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Doctors, nurses, and the elderly rolled up their sleeves across the European Union to receive the first doses of the coronavirus vaccine on Sunday in a symbolic show of unity and a moment of hope for a continent confronting its worst health care crisis in a century.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the mass roll-out of a viable coronavirus vaccine was "a touching moment of unity" for the bloc.

While a few countries started giving doses a day early, the coordinated rollout for the 27-nation bloc was aimed at projecting a unified message that the vaccine was safe and Europe’s best chance to emerge from the pandemic and the economic devastation caused by months of lockdown.

For health care workers who have been battling the virus with only masks and shields to protect themselves, the vaccines represented an emotional relief as well as a public chance to urge Europe's 450 million people to get the shots for their own health and that of others.

"Today I’m here as a citizen, but most of all as a nurse, to represent my category and all the health workers who choose to believe in science,” said Claudia Alivernini, 29, who was the first of five doctors and nurses at the Spallanzani infectious disease hospital in Rome to receive the vaccine.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called the vaccine — which was developed in record time — a "game-changer".

"We know that today is not the end of the pandemic, but it is the beginning of the victory," he said.

In Prague, Czech prime minister Andrej Babis received his shot at dawn and asserted: "There’s nothing to worry about". The Czech Republic was spared the worst of the pandemic in the spring only to see its health care system near collapse in the autumn. Sitting next to him was World War II veteran Emilie Repikova, who also received a shot.

In Rome, five doctors and nurses wearing white scrubs sat in a semi-circle at Rome’s Spallanzani infectious diseases hospital to receive their doses.

"Getting vaccinated is an act of love and responsibility toward the collective whole," Claudia Alivernini, a 29-year-old Spallanzani nurse, said on the eve of being the first to receive the shot in Italy, which has Europe's worth virus toll at more than 71,000 dead.

Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza, speaking outside the hospital, said the coordinated EU rollout was a sign of hope for the continent, but that people still cannot let down their guard for several months more.

"We still have difficult months ahead," he said. "It’s a beautiful day, but we still need to exercise caution... this vaccine is the true path to close out this difficult season".

Headstart for some member states

Germany, Hungary and Slovakia started their COVID-19 vaccination campaign on Saturday, a day earlier than the European Commission's planned coordinated roll-out across all member states.

EU member states each received a first shipment of just under 10,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine on Saturday but vaccination was not supposed to start across the bloc's 27 nations until Sunday.

But Hungary's Minister for Human Resources, Miklos Kasler, said in a statement the vaccines had been delivered to the South-Pest Hospital Centre in Budapest and that healthcare workers had started receiving the jab.

"Today, we have taken an important step in curbing the epidemic," he added.

Slovakia's Health Ministry said in a Facebook post on Saturday afternoon that "vaccination will begin in the faculty hospital in Nitra today".

Immunisation also began in a German nursing home.

"Every day that we wait is one day too many," said Tobias Krueger, operator of a nursing home in Halberstadt, in the northeast region of Saxony-Anhalt.

The arrival of the vaccine in Germany was heralded by a young pilot, Samy Kramer, who traced a giant syringe in the sky on a 200 km flight.

It is unclear why these countries started their vaccination campaign a day earlier than the European Commission's coordinated roll-out planned for.

In France, where many question the safety of vaccines, the French government has been cautious in its messaging and keen to ensure that it is not seen as forcing vaccinations on the public. France’s first vaccination at a nursing home in a poor area outside of Paris on Sunday was not broadcast on live television as it was elsewhere in Europe and no government ministers attended.

"We didn’t need to convince her. She said 'yes, I’m ready for anything to avoid getting this disease,'" said Dr Samir Tine, head of geriatric services for the Sevran nursing home where France’s first vaccine dose went to 78-year-old Mauricette.

"It’s an important day," Tine said. "We are very eager to have a new weapon at our disposal and we are very eager to rediscover our normal lives".

In a video released on Twitter on Saturday, von der Leyen said that Europe "is starting to turn the page on a difficult year".

"Today is delivery day and tomorrow vaccination against COVID-19 is beginning across the European Union".

"Our European Vaccination Days are a touching moment of unity," she added.

The Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine, which requires two shots, was approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on December 21. The EU has secured up to 300 million doses through an Advance Purchase Agreement and expects for the first 200 million doses to have been delivered by September 2021.

But it has also struck similar deals with other pharmaceutical companies including Sanofi-GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Janssen Pharmaceutica NV, CureVac, and Moderna. These contracts mean the bloc "has secured enough doses of vaccines for our whole population of 450 million people," von der Leyen said in her video.

The EMA is expected to decide whether to approve the Moderna vaccine on January 6.