May 8, 2021

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EU vaccine woes shift from supply squeeze to rollout

5 min read


Germany, France and other European countries struggling to speed up their Covid-19 vaccination programs are under increasing pressure to step up their efforts as other EU governments set more demanding targets and are more effective in deploying available supplies.

Denmark and Sweden aim to fully immunize all adults who want it by the end of June – a month ahead of the UK and well ahead of Germany and France, who are sticking to the target of ‘EU to vaccinate 70% of adults by September.

Delays in using available vaccine doses in Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands contrast with the rapid deployment in Denmark, Estonia and Lithuania, indicating that the bottlenecks of the offers are not the only reason for the relatively slow deployment of the EU.

As the EU expects vaccine supplies to triple to 300 million doses in the second quarter, attention is shifting from its faulty supply process of whether Member States are ready to massively expand their immunization capacity within a few weeks. EU leaders will discuss their vaccination efforts at a summit via video conference on Thursday.

The Danish government has issued a tender to private companies to help it quadruple its capacity to 400,000 shots per day – or 8.5% of the adult population – from next month until the end of July. It aims to deliver injections to 3 million people, the bulk of its adult population, in just seven weeks from early May.

“The number of 400,000 is quite extraordinary for a country like Denmark with a population of just 5.8 million,” said Thomas Kristiansen, a general practitioner in Ishøj, near Copenhagen. “But if there is any hope that we can get 400,000 doses, we have to plan for it.”

Sweden engages private health clinics and occupational health companies to help accelerate its vaccination campaign, aiming to deliver nearly 4 million vaccines per month between April and June to an adult population of 8.2 million .

“We have a lot of really well-trained staff,” said Emma Spak, health officer for municipalities and regions in Sweden, who represents the authorities responsible for vaccine deployment. “We still think it will be possible, but it will be a huge effort. This has never been done before.

Other EU countries are also expanding their capabilities, but not to Nordic ambition levels. The European Commission has urged member states “to deliver the actual vaccination as quickly as possible and to ensure that it keeps pace with deliveries”.

Mario Draghi, Italy’s new prime minister, has made ramping up vaccinations a priority for his government, with a plan to call in the military, civil protection officials and volunteers. Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin said on Tuesday his country would give at least one dose to 82% of those over 18 by the end of June.

Doses of Oxford / AstraZeneca are taken out of storage in a vaccination center in Copenhagen © Ritzau Scanpix / Liselotte Sabroe via REUTERS

Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, senior researcher at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which has tracked vaccine deployment in Europe, said Denmark’s eye-catching capacity target of 7% of the population per day was unlikely to be needed. But, he said, it was “a manifestation of a practical approach which is not necessarily what you see in all countries.”

Data compiled by the EU’s European Center for Disease Prevention and Control suggest that there are wide disparities in the effectiveness of national vaccine deployments. While the figures can be skewed by inconsistent reporting of vaccine deliveries, they show that some countries are much better at using supplies quickly than others.

Estonia and Lithuania have administered all of the doses given to them, according to ECDC data seen on Wednesday. Spain, Slovakia, Poland, Portugal and Cyprus all used more than 80%

Italians over 80 wait to receive a dose of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine in a military hospital in Milan © Luca Bruno / AP

In contrast, Belgium, the Netherlands, Croatia, Latvia, Luxembourg, Bulgaria and Hungary used two-thirds of their supplies or less. France has so far administered only 3.8 million out of 7.7 million doses received, one of the worst records in the EU, according to Covidtracker.fr, a website.

Denmark had used only half of it, according to ECDC data, although figures from Denmark vaccination authority Wednesday show 95% utilization.

In Germany, where criticism of the EU’s botched buying strategy was strongest, the national immunization strategy is coming under increasing scrutiny, amid reports that large numbers vaccines have accumulated in stock.

“The figures clearly show that many vaccines are unused,” Bärbel Bas, health policy expert for the Social Democrats, told the Bundestag on Wednesday. She warned that could persist even after increasing supplies in the second quarter.

Jens Spahn, the German Minister of Health, admitted that there was a problem. He said the 16 regions of Germany have the capacity to deliver 300,000 doses of vaccine per day and are ready to increase that number to 500,000. Yet, at present, only 140 to 150,000 shots are given. .

He said regions initially complained that they needed more vaccines from the federal government and the EU. “But now the doses are there – so I guess the vaccinations will now ramp up,” he told MPs.

One factor behind the relatively low deployment rate is the slow uptake of the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine amid skepticism in some quarters about its effectiveness. German authorities acknowledged on Wednesday that only 15% of available AstraZeneca injections had been administered.

In Germany, France and some other countries it is only granted to those under 65, forcing health authorities to field other cohorts eligible for the jab amid doubts, including French President Emmanuel Macron , about its efficiency.

An elderly woman in a wheelchair is helped at a mobile vaccination unit on a bus in Grassau, Germany © Lennart Preiss / Getty Images

Hanno Kautz, spokesman for the German Ministry of Health, said that as of February 23, 1.54 million doses of AstraZeneca had been administered but only 240,000 had actually been used. “Nothing should be left behind,” he said.

Kirkegaard said that with the vaccine supply expected to decline from the end of March – and the upside potential for newly approved vaccines coming into effect – it was up to governments to improve deployment.

“You would think that with an upcoming federal election in Germany in September, they would have all the political incentives to work like clockwork. They clearly failed.

But Spak warned that supply issues were still a significant risk and could still undermine ambitious goals in countries like Sweden. What Sweden needed now was “sustainable and predictable deliveries”.

“If it’s like a bottle of Heinz ketchup and all of the supplies suddenly come in June, it’s going to be very difficult.”

Additional reporting by Davide Ghiglione in Rome



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