The European vaccination campaign against covid-19 has completed one year this Monday. 12 months of injections, more than 1,100 million doses distributed and almost 500,000 lives saved throughout the continent, according to official estimates. A sanitary and logistical feat that on December 27, 2020, with the first punctures in Guadalajara, Saint Denis (France) or Rome, seemed very difficult to achieve and that during the first weeks was in doubt due to production and distribution problems.
With 78.4% of the adult population already vaccinated, the community club is now facing the new wave of infections this winter with a number of hospitalizations and deaths incomparably lower than before the vaccination campaigns. A year later, the success of the fight against the pandemic is still not guaranteed and the appearance of new variants causes discouragement in part of the population. The resistance of millions of Europeans to being vaccinated and the lack of doses to vaccinate the inhabitants of third countries (especially in Africa) forces the EU to remain on guard against a possible brutal outbreak of the disease.
“Today exactly one year ago, the vaccination campaigns against covid-19 began throughout Europe and since then we have come a long way,” said the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in a speech on the occasion of the anniversary. Von der Leyen thanked the efforts of all sectors involved in unprecedented vaccination campaigns, from health and pharmaceutical to logistics.
In Spain, the largest vaccination campaign in history started just a year ago in Guadalajara. Araceli, 96, a resident of the Los Olmos center, was the first person to receive a dose of the coronavirus vaccine, in her case from Pfizer-BioNtech. Vaccination began in the country and the rest of the European Union partners some week later than in other places such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel, which raised some doubts that were increased by supply problems and delays in the dose delivery by manufacturers, especially Janssen. The misgivings, however, dissipated as spring progressed, the arrival of vials grew and citizens flocked to the vaccination centers, reports Oriol Güell.
With the greater availability of doses, it also began to become evident that the willingness of Spaniards to be immunized was greater than that of most of the surrounding countries, with the exception of Portugal, which has led the country to the head of the most vaccinated people in the world and to receive international accolades for an exemplary campaign. With data from last Thursday, 37.83 million people over 12 years of age, 89.8% of the target group, have already completed the vaccination schedule. In addition, 700,000 children from 5 to 11 years old (21% of the 3.3 million who live in Spain) had already received the first dose of the pediatric serum in the first 10 days of the campaign aimed at this age group.
Lack of solidarity
Dr. Hans Kluge, director of the European division of the World Health Organization (WHO), stresses that “it is the first time in history that vaccines develop so quickly.” But Kluge regrets, in statements to EL PAÍS, that this great achievement “has escaped through the cracks of society: the lack of solidarity, on the one hand, and the lack of trust, on the other.”
Von der Leyen, given the increase in infections caused by the omicron variant, has not fallen into triumphalism either. But he recalled that Europe has “sufficient doses for the entire population to be vaccinated and receive the booster.” “So let’s protect ourselves and others, because the vaccine is the best chance we have to defeat the virus,” the president of the Commission encouraged, given that the percentage of vaccinated people has peaked in some countries and in others have stalled at very low levels.
The first anniversary of the vaccination campaigns coincides, precisely, with the general debate on the need or not to impose the vaccine on a mandatory basis. The subject was taboo a year ago, when the European Commission and most European governments considered it counterproductive to even raise the possibility of an inescapable vaccination for all citizens.
But the emergence of important population pockets that, for one reason or another, are reluctant to accept the prick has led to an open view of mandatory inoculation as of 2022. And the tension between supporters and opponents of the vaccine is intensifying, aggravated by the fatigue of a prolonged health, social and economic crisis.
Germany (with 70% of the total population vaccinated, compared to 79.9% in Spain) has already approved mandatory vaccination as of February 2022. France (74%) has limited the issuance of the COVID certificate to vaccinated people , which closes the way to most social events to people who can only prove a negative test. And in Belgium (76%), where the government until now ruled out imposing the injection, the prime minister indicated this Monday that he “is willing” to address the obligation of the vaccine.
But the resistance of the anti-vaccine minority is also increasingly virulent. Demonstrations in Brussels against the antidote have sparked altercations for three Sundays in a row, with dozens of detainees. And in Saxony, the German stronghold of puncture resistance, the police thwarted the plans of a small group to assassinate the regional prime minister.
The outbreak of infections caused by omicron, first sequenced in South Africa at the end of November, fuels denialist theories about the effectiveness of vaccines. But the figures leave little doubt about the deadly impact of the disease before and after December 27, 2020, when the EU launched vaccination campaigns in concert in the club’s 27 countries.
The first wave of the pandemic in Spain caused up to 996 deaths in one day in April 2020 and in February of this year, with vaccines still reaching a very small percentage of the population, fatal levels of more than 700 people a day. In the wave of this winter, it has not reached a hundred daily deaths for now, despite the fact that the number of infections has soared above 72,000 cases in 24 hours.
The same hopeful pattern, of more infections but fewer deaths, is repeated in countries with high vaccination levels, while partners with low rates, such as Romania, have suffered the dramatic scenes of the first wave, with saturated hospitals and the transfer of patients to neighboring countries.
A study by the WHO and the ECDC (European Center for Disease Prevention and Control) estimates that until November 2021 vaccines prevented the death of 470,000 people over 60 years in the 33 European countries analyzed.
In Spain, with 97% of the population of this age group vaccinated, 89,000 deaths were prevented. In other words, while the country represents 10.5% of the total population of the EU (447.7 million), in terms of lives saved by vaccines, the weight of Spain increases to 18.9% of the total population. Union. It is also expected that in the future immunization will prevent 72% of the deaths of COVID-19 patients over 60 years of age. In Central and Eastern European countries, where campaigns were slower or stalled, the percentage of lives saved is feared to be much lower, around 33% in Hungary, 20% in Poland or 14% in Slovakia, according to the aforementioned study.
Kluge, director of the European division at WHO, recommends that vaccination be carried out by involving societies and accompanying it “with transparency and responsibility, with control and information on adverse cases that occur.” And remembering that the application of vaccines is not enough by itself, but must be coupled “with social health measures, universal health coverage and powerful primary care.”
The WHO and ECDC point out that the slow deployment of vaccines is one of the elements that contributes to the higher mortality in some countries. The threat loomed a year ago over almost the entire continent, because after December 27 the doses only began to arrive in a dropper. The manufacturers of the first vaccines authorized by the European Commission, BioNTech / Pfizer and AstraZeneca, cited manufacturing problems and adjustments in the production and distribution chain to justify the lack of vials reported by several European governments.
The protests intensified and put a Commission on the ropes that, without having powers to do so, had decided to assume the coordination of joint purchases to prevent vaccines only reaching the richest countries of the club. Europe’s slowness contrasted with the rapid take-off in the US and the UK, which had just completed the exit from the EU, also wielded its rapid campaign as proof of the success of Brexit. Even Russia and China tried to take advantage of the EU’s stumbling block to promote the use of their vaccines, Sputnik and Sinovac, despite the fact that they had not been (and have not yet been) authorized by the Union. “We came to fear that the initial fiasco would affect the credibility of the vaccines and put public opinion against it,” acknowledges a community source.
Von der Leyen reacted sharply. And after imposing an export control to prevent pharmaceutical companies from selling the doses to the highest bidder, he redoubled the pressure on the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which ended in a total break. The figures have turned around and the vaccination rate in the EU (78.4%) is ahead of the UK (69%) or the US (60%) and has far outpaced Russia (43%), although not so much to China (74%).
The German BioNTech and the American Pfizer have become the supplier par excellence of the European Union, covering 2.4 billion of the 4.2 billion doses reserved by the Commission. The rest correspond to four licensed vaccines (Moderna, Janssen, AstraZeneca and Novavax) or under authorization (Sanofi / GSK) or development (Novavax).
The EU has also been, with 3 billion euros, one of the main contributors to the global Covax initiative, which aims to vaccinate 20% of the population in countries with few or limited resources. The Commission also expects to share 700 million doses by mid-2022. The rate of punctures, however, is extremely slow in countries close to the EU, especially in Africa, where just 7% of the population has received the vaccine. African countries accuse Westerners of hoarding available doses and the unrest is damaging even diplomatic relations.
“African governments are very angry, due to the lack of vaccines and also due to the sudden closure of borders after the appearance of the omicron variant,” acknowledges the head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell in statements to this newspaper. Dr. Kluge considers essential “to guarantee global access to vaccines and avoid a hoarding nationalism.” And he regrets that neither the G-7 nor the G-20 have assumed leadership in such vital terrain to end the pandemic.
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