Doctors, nurses and the elderly rolled up their sleeves across the European Union to receive the first doses of the coronavirus vaccine Sunday in a symbolic show of unity and moment of hope for a continent confronting its worst health-care crisis in a century.
Even though a few countries started giving doses a day early, the coordinated rollout for a bloc of 27 nations and nearly 450 million people aimed at projecting a unified message that the vaccine was safe and was 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 them, the vaccines represented an emotional relief as well as a very public chance to urge people to protect themselves and others.
Italian virus czar Domenico Arcuri said it was significant that Italy’s first doses were administered at Spallanzani, where a Chinese couple visiting from Wuhan tested positive in January and became Italy’s first confirmed cases.
Within weeks, northern Lombardy would become the epicenter of the outbreak in Europe and a cautionary tale of what happens when even wealthy countries find themselves unprepared for a pandemic. Lombardy still accounts for around a third of the dead in Italy, which has the continent’s worst confirmed virus toll at nearly 72,000 dead.
“Today is a beautiful, symbolic day: All the citizens of Europe together are starting to get their vaccinations, the first ray of light after a long night,” Arcuri told reporters outside the hospital.
But he cautioned: “We all have to continue to be prudent, cautious and responsible. We still have a long road ahead, but finally we see a bit of light.”
The vaccines, developed by Germany’s BioNTech and American drugmaker Pfizer, started arriving in super-cold containers at EU hospitals on Friday from a factory in Belgium. Each country was only getting a fraction of the doses needed — fewer than 10,000 in the first batches — with the bigger rollout expected in January when more vaccines become available.
The Czech Republic was spared the worst of the pandemic in the spring only to see its health-care system near collapse in the fall. In Prague, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis received his shot at dawn Sunday and asserted: “There’s nothing to worry about.”
Altogether, the EU’s 27 nations have recorded at least 16 million coronavirus infections and more than 336,000 deaths — huge numbers that experts say still understate the true toll of the pandemic due to missed cases and limited testing.
All those getting shots will have to come back in three weeks for a second dose.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen released a video Saturday celebrating the vaccine rollout, calling it “a touching moment of unity.” The vaccination campaign should ease frustrations that were building up, especially in Germany, as Britain, Canada and the United States kicked off their inoculation programs with the same vaccine weeks earlier.
As it turned out, some EU immunizations began a day early in Germany, Hungary and Slovakia. The operator of a German nursing home where dozens of people were vaccinated Saturday, including a 101-year-old woman, said “every day that we wait is one day too many.”
Each EU country decided on its own who will get the first shots, with most vowing to put health-care workers and nursing-home residents first.
EU leaders are counting on the vaccine rollout to help the bloc project a sense of unity in a complex lifesaving mission after it faced a year of difficulties 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 the victory,” he said.
Among the politicians who got shots Sunday to promote a wider acceptance of vaccinations was Bulgarian Health Minister Kostadin Angelov.
“I can’t wait to see my 70-year-old father without fear that I could infect him,” Angelov said.
Meanwhile, a new virus variant that has been spreading rapidly around London and southern England has now been detected France, Spain, Canada and Japan. The new variant, which British authorities said is much more easily transmitted, has caused many countries to put new restrictions on those coming from Britain.
Japan announced it would temporarily ban all non-resident foreigners from entering through Jan. 31 as a precaution against the U.K.’s new variant.
Germany’s BioNTech has said it’s confident that its vaccine works against the new U.K. variant, but added that further studies are needed to be completely certain.
The European Medicines Agency on Jan. 6 will consider approving 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 get the shot in Cyprus and criticized vaccine skeptics of being “in league with a murderer.”
While there may be some side-effects, he said, “if the coronavirus hits you, it’ll be the end of you.”