In Vaccine Drive, EU Turns to Super-Freezers, Church Leaders
(Bloomberg) -- The road to protecting the European Union’s 450 million people against the coronavirus begins in a small community in Belgium best known for brewing beer.
Refrigerated cargo trucks carrying hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses are set to roll out of Pfizer Inc.’s factory in Puurs -- 15 miles south of Antwerp -- in the coming days, marking the start of an unprecedented effort to deliver the shot to 27 countries at the same time.
From Malta to Finland, the EU is about to embark on an immunization campaign aimed at halting a pathogen that’s ravaged the continent this year. Trailing the U.K. and U.S., the bloc has been feeling the heat, especially because the first vaccine was pioneered in Germany. The shot developed by BioNTech SE and Pfizer was cleared by the European medicines regulator on Monday, paving the way for the first people to be immunized within days.
“It’s a highly complex undertaking -- so many vaccine doses to be spread over such a large area,” said Klaus Stohr, a former official at the World Health Organization who helped mobilize governments and drugmakers to prepare for pandemics. “It will take time.”
The arrival of vaccines marks a turning point in the battle to curb infections and revive battered economies. Underscoring the urgency, U.K. health officials raised the alarm about a variant of the virus that’s spreading quickly across London and southeast England. Officials with the European Medicines Agency said there’s no evidence to suggest the vaccine won’t work against the new mutation.
The U.K. on Dec. 2 became the first country to clear the vaccine, followed by U.S. regulators more than a week later. Now the focus shifts to Europe. The EU has ordered 200 million doses of Pfizer’s and BioNTech’s shot on behalf of member states, with an option to obtain 100 million more, and the goal is to provide access to all countries at the same time on the basis of population size. Supplies will be limited in the early days, although another vaccine may soon help bolster availability.
Skepticism and Suspicion
The European medicines watchdog is scheduled to decide on the merits of a similar vaccine from Moderna Inc. on Jan. 6. The U.S. cleared that second product late last week.
Not everyone on the continent will be eager to roll up their sleeves. Hesitancy runs high in countries including France and Poland. Several members of the French parliament have offered to be among the first to be vaccinated to show their confidence in the product. Austria is considering a bolder strategy: it may give immunized people a voucher or cash payment of about 50 euros ($61), along with freedom to move about.
In Romania, meanwhile, some priests from the Orthodox Church have begun encouraging people to get immunized amid polls indicating that about 40% of citizens are opposed.
Some governments are deliberately moving at a more cautious pace, recognizing that any setbacks could further shake public faith. The Netherlands, for instance, plans the first vaccinations on Jan. 8, almost two weeks later than other countries, to ensure safety, according to Hugo de Jonge, the health minister.
“We can only achieve a high-vaccination coverage if people have confidence,” he wrote in a Dec. 17 letter to Parliament.
Some snags are inevitable. In Italy, the country worst hit in the first wave last spring, authorities are already trying to quell concern about the process being messy.
“People won’t need to wait in line,” Domenico Arcuri, the country’s coronavirus czar, said at a news conference last week. “There will be an orderly vaccination process.”
But as the U.S. and Britain are starting to find out, vaccinating enough people to roll back the virus that causes Covid-19 is a massive logistics and public-education feat. Just as the deployment ramps up, Europe and other regions suspended travel links to the U.K. amid an effort to contain a variant of the coronavirus that officials said spreads more easily.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine must be transported at temperatures that are colder than winter in Antarctica. After delivery, it must be stored in special freezers. It can also last for five days in a fridge, or up to 15 days in special thermal shippers filled with dry ice.
France is setting up about 50 super-freezers at university hospitals across the country. In Austria, there are 17 such deep-freeze storage facilities, meaning any location can be supplied within two hours, according to Andreas Windischbauer, whose company Herba Chemosan Apotheker AG is helping with the logistics. Some countries, like Greece, are calling on the military to assist.
The vaccine doses will initially come from Puurs, a Flemish town best-known for brewing a golden ale with a high alcohol content called Duvel -- meaning devil -- and for its annual asparagus festival.
The manufacturers will deliver doses to one central location in each of the 27 member states, then each country will oversee its own storage, distribution and immunization. Most EU countries plan to start vaccinations on the same day in a show of unity.
“We protect our citizens together,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a tweet last Thursday.
Many nations will initially focus on elderly residents of nursing homes and their staff, while health workers will also be among those who are prioritized.
The rollout will unfold gradually. The EU may have enough vaccine for two-thirds of its population in the middle of September, three months behind the U.S., according to London-based research firm Airfinity Ltd.
Some Covid-19 outbreaks could persist into the autumn of 2021 and beyond, according to Stohr, the former WHO official. “We should not believe there’s any prospect of back to normal before 2022,” he said.
Under the veneer of unity, there are signs of competition among EU countries as leaders rush to combat a virus that’s killed hundreds of thousands of people across the region since the start of the year. The Czech Republic’s health minister said his country will get more doses than Germany in the first deliveries, when adjusted to reflect the country’s population.
In Denmark, it’s possible immunizations could begin even sooner than Dec. 27. “I am all for European coordination,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said, “but once the vaccine hits Danish soil, we’ll get going.”
German Health Minister Jens Spahn, meanwhile, has urged patience and discipline. Early doses will only be enough to protect those older than 80 -- a bracket that accounts for half of all of the country’s Covid deaths -- along with those who care for them and health-care workers.
“It’s a question of solidarity,” Spahn said Friday. “On one hand, the especially vulnerable should be vaccinated first, and on the other hand, we should expect that those who get vaccinated first don’t turn around and ask, ‘Which rules don’t apply to me anymore?’”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.