BRUSSELS (BLOOMBERG) - AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine is finally arriving in European Union countries as the bloc tries to speed up its inoculation campaign and put a crisis-ridden period behind it.
France will use it beginning Saturday (Feb 6), with a priority for healthcare workers, after its first batch arrived Friday evening. Germany, Ireland, Spain and Austria will also start offering the shot, while Portugal will receive deliveries early next week.
The doses are transported mostly by truck via hubs across the continent, and their arrival is a welcome development for the EU, which has spent the past few weeks in a public row with AstraZeneca over vaccine targets.
That ultimately spilled over into a back-and-forth blame game, threats of protectionism and huge political errors that threatened the Brexit deal between Britain and the EU.
Even with the roll-out improving, governments remain worried about delays given thousands are still dying daily. They are also sticking with lockdowns to control the spread of the virus, particularly as new variants emerge.
Germany is likely to extend its Covid-19 restrictions for another two weeks when Chancellor Angela Merkel and state government leaders meet next week, people familiar with the discussions said. Greece on Friday tightened restrictions on movement and shopping.
According to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker, the EU's vaccination progress is so far lagging behind Britain and the US.
Despite the slow start, the European Commission is sticking to a plan to have 70 per cent of the adult population vaccinated by late summer. It expects that the pace will pick up rapidly in the coming months, with deliveries of at least 300 million doses in the second quarter.
Amid ongoing worry about delays, a group of EU leaders urged European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen to swiftly conclude talks with other vaccine developers, such as Novovax and Valneva. They also highlighted risks surrounding the decision of Johnson & Johnson (J&J) to ship vaccines to the US for packaging.
The J&J product "may be a potential game changer due to easier storage and transport as well as requirement of only one dose", the leaders said in the letter obtained by Bloomberg.
AstraZeneca's shot is the third to be cleared by the EU's drug regulator. It approved BioNTech and Pfizer's vaccine in December, and Moderna's last month.
Many countries have been cautious of the AstraZeneca jab, only recommending it for those under the age of 65. But governments are still counting on it to speed up the inoculation effort.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said Friday it will allow the country to double vaccinations in February versus what would have been possible with only Pfizer and Moderna.
The AstraZeneca shot will initially be applied primarily to healthcare workers aged 64 and younger, allowing those above 65 to be more quickly vaccinated with the other two.
Austria is also ramping up. In Vienna, the additional supply means the city can administer 28,600 doses next week, twice as many as in the week of Feb 1.
As governments try to move on from the vaccine debacle, they also want to prevent the high-profile blunders from undermining public confidence. Mr Spahn emphasised that point on Friday, saying all approved products are equally good for under-65s.
"We have with us all three vaccines, effective tools to fight this pandemic," he said in Berlin. "We hope and expect that even more will soon follow."