By Danica Kirka and Aniruddha Ghosal
The campaign to vanquish the coronavirus is picking up speed, with Britain beginning to dispense the second vaccine in its arsenal Monday. But authorities in France and elsewhere in Europe are coming under fire for slow rollouts and delays.
In the U.S., meanwhile, government officials reported that vaccinations have accelerated markedly after a sluggish start. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, said over the weekend that 1.5 million shots were administered in 72 hours, bringing the total over the past three weeks to about 4 million.
Britain on Monday became the first nation to start using the COVID-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, ramping up its nationwide inoculation campaign amid soaring infection rates blamed on a new and seemingly more contagious variant of the virus.
Brian Pinker, an 82-year-old dialysis patient, received the first shot at Oxford University Hospital, saying in a statement: “I can now really look forward to celebrating my 48th wedding anniversary.”
The country has recorded more than 50,000 new coronavirus infections a day over the past six days, and deaths have climbed past 75,000, one of the worst tolls in Europe.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a wave of near-lockdowns the weekend before Christmas and warned on Monday that “tough, tough” weeks lie ahead and that tighter restrictions are coming soon: “If you look at the numbers, there’s no question we will have to take tougher measures.”
Those measures could include more school closings, curfews and a total ban on the mixing of people from different households.
Elsewhere, vaccination efforts have been slow to get off the ground. France’s cautious approach appears to have backfired, leaving just a few hundred people vaccinated after the first week and rekindling anger over the government’s handling of the pandemic.
The slow rollout was blamed on mismanagement, staffing shortages over the holidays and a complex consent policy designed to accommodate vaccine skepticism among the French.
“It’s a state scandal,” Jean Rottner, president of the Grand-Est region of eastern France, said on France-2 television. “Getting vaccinated is becoming more complicated than buying a car.”
Health Minister Olivier Veran promised that by the end of Monday, “several thousand” people will have been vaccinated, with the tempo picking up through the week. But that would still leave France well behind its neighbors.
French media broadcast charts comparing vaccine figures in various countries: In France, a nation of 67 million people, just 516 people were vaccinated in the first six days, according to the French Health Ministry. Germany’s first-week total surpassed 200,000, and Italy’s was over 100,000. Millions have been vaccinated in the U.S. and China.
The Dutch government has also faced criticism for its late start in delivering vaccinations. Its health ministry said it is moving up the beginning of the campaign by two days, to Wednesday.
The European Union, meanwhile, defended its strategy amid growing criticism about the slow rollout of COVID-19 shots across the 27-nation bloc of 450 million inhabitants.
EU Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said the main problem “is an issue of production capacity, an issue that everybody is facing.”
The EU has sealed six vaccine contracts with a variety of manufacturers. But only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been approved for use so far across the EU. The EU’s drug regulators are expected to decide on Wednesday whether to recommend authorizing the Moderna vaccine.
Aspects of Britain’s vaccination plans have also spurred controversy.
Both of the vaccines it is using require two shots, and Pfizer has recommended that the second dose be given within 21 days. But British health authorities want to give the first dose to as many people as possible right away, rather than holding vaccine in reserve to ensure recipients get their second shot on time. The plan requires stretching out the time between doses to as much as 12 weeks.
While two doses are required to fully protect against COVID-19, one dose offers a high level of protection.
Stephen Evans, a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said policymakers are being forced to balance the potential risks and benefits in the middle of the disaster.
“We have a crisis situation in the U.K. with a new variant spreading rapidly, and as has become clear to everyone during 2020, delays cost lives,” Evans said. “When resources of doses and people to vaccinate are limited, then vaccinating more people with potentially less efficacy is demonstrably better than a fuller efficacy in only half.”
In the U.S., Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar dismissed such a strategy, saying on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that scientific data “just isn’t there” to support that approach.
The rollout in the U.S. has been marked by a multitude of logistical hurdles, a patchwork of approaches by state and local governments, and confusion. Some people are uncertain where or when to get a shot.
Fauci acknowledged over the weekend that “we are not where we want to be,” but he expressed optimism that the momentum will pick up by mid-January. He said President-elect Joe Biden’s goal of vaccinating 100 million people in his first 100 days in office is “realistic.”
On Sunday, India, the world’s second-most populous country, authorized its first two COVID-19 vaccines—the Oxford-AstraZeneca one and another developed by an Indian company. The move paves the way for a huge inoculation program in the desperately poor nation of 1.4 billion people.
India has confirmed more than 10.3 million cases of the virus, second in the world behind the U.S. It also has reported about 150,000 deaths.
Neither of the approved vaccines requires the ultra-cold storage facilities that some others do. Instead, they can be kept in refrigerators, making them more feasible for the country.