Germany is pushing to ramp up production of Covid-19 vaccines as Europe faces pressure to close the gap with Britain and the U.S. in a bid to end the pandemic.
With inoculations gradually getting started across the region, authorities are concerned the slow pace of the rollout could force longer lockdowns and cause more economic damage for months to come. Across Europe, more than 400,000 people have died from the virus, which has infected 16.2 million and continues to spread.
“We’re working intensely on having additional production here in Germany soon,” Jens Spahn, the country’s health minister, said Monday on ZDF television, adding that more capacity could be available at a facility in Marburg as soon as February. “That would increase the amount considerably.”
Less than a week after the European Union cleared a shot developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, the sense of urgency has grown amid concerns about a faster-spreading strain that emerged in the U.K. and has been found in Spain and elsewhere in Europe.
Like other European countries, Italy started its vaccination campaign on Sunday, administering a shot to health workers. The country is now seeking to speed up the process of inoculating the bulk of the population, which will take months, Health Minister Roberto Speranza said in an interview with La Stampa.
Italy plans to rely on a production hub in Pomezia, near Rome, where a part of the viral element of the AstraZeneca Plc’s shot is produced. A military airport near the capital will distribute the vaccine across the country.
In France, the mayor of Nancy called on the government to prioritize vaccinations in the eastern part of the country, where Covid-19 cases are surging again.
“In our regions, in the worst-hit regions today, we need to get the vaccine as quickly as possible because we need to protect the population,” Mathieu Klein told France Info radio. “I’m very worried and I feel we’re maybe losing a bit of time.”
While inoculations offer a way out of the pandemic, bottlenecks have disrupted distribution. In Spain, vaccines were held up by a logistic problem in Belgium and will be delayed until Tuesday.
To speed up the rollout, a debate has emerged about breaking BioNTech’s license or sharing it with other manufacturers. Spahn dismissed the proposal in favor of boosting existing capacity, saying more suppliers wouldn’t speed things up because production is complicated and requires preparation.
In addition to supply issues, authorities face the difficult task of convincing people that the shots are safe and effective. A poll in France published in Le Journal du Dimanche on Sunday showed that only 44% of those surveyed planned to receive the vaccine, with just 13% certain to.
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“As of today we have no idea if these vaccines protect against transmission,” Dominique Le Guludec, president of France’s HAS health authority, told FranceInter radio. “The only certainty we have today regarding these vaccines is that they prevent symptomatic forms and severe forms. So they will stop the health system becoming saturated.”
After approving the first vaccine weeks after the U.S. and the U.K., the EU made a show of marking “Delivery Day” on Sunday, when doses of the vaccine were distributed.
But the fanfare doesn’t make up for the bloc’s supply gap. It may have enough vaccines for two-thirds of its population by the middle of September, three months behind the U.S., according to London-based research firm Airfinity Ltd.
In Germany -- a country of 80 million people -- as many as 13 million doses are expected by the end of the first quarter. As a result, officials are pleading with pandemic-weary residents to stick to distancing and hygiene measures with most having to wait months for an inoculation.
Some 18,454 people in the country had been given a dose of the vaccine as of Sunday, according to data compiled by the Robert Koch Institute that didn’t include the state of Hesse.
“It’s important to see that not everyone will get their chance in these first days,” Spahn said, adding on Twitter that it could be mid-year for widespread availability if other vaccines get approved.
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