FRANKFURT, Germany - Germany, Hungary and Slovakia began giving out their first coronavirus vaccine shots on Saturday only hours after receiving their first shipments, upsetting the European Union’s plans for a coordinated rollout Sunday across the bloc’s 27 nations.
"Every day that we wait is one day too many," said Tobias Krueger, operator of a nursing home where immunizations began in Halberstadt, in the northeast German region of Saxony-Anhalt.
The first person at the home to be immunized with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 101-year-old Edith Kwoizalla, the dpa news agency reported.
Krueger said 40 of the home’s 59 residents wanted the immunization shot along with 10 of around 40 workers. He was among those immunized but added, "I also understand the concerns."
In Hungary, health care workers were vaccinated at the Southern Pest Central Hospital in Budapest, while in Slovakia, the first person to receive a jab was a 60-year-old top expert on infectious diseases, Vladimir Krcmery. He was vaccinated along with doctors at the University Hospital in the city of Nitra, in what Health Minister Marek Krajci called a "historic moment."
The first shipments of the vaccine arrived at hospitals across the EU in super-cold containers late Friday and early Saturday after being sent from a manufacturing center in Belgium before Christmas.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen released a video celebrating the vaccine rollout for the bloc of nearly 450 million people, calling it "a touching moment of unity."
"Today, we start turning the page on a difficult year. The COVID-19 vaccine has been delivered to all EU countries. Vaccination will begin tomorrow across the EU," she said.
The rollout marks a moment of hope for a region that includes some of the world’s earliest and worst-hit virus hot spots — Italy and Spain — and others like the Czech Republic, which were spared early on only to see their health care systems near their breaking point in the fall.
In all, EU nations have recorded at least 16 million coronavirus infections and more than 336,000 deaths — huge numbers that experts agree still understate the true toll of the pandemic due to missed cases and limited testing.
Still, the vaccine rollout helps 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. It also brings a sigh of relief for EU politicians who were frustrated after Britain, Canada and the United States began their vaccination programs earlier this month with the same German-developed shot.
"It’s here, the good news at Christmas," German Health Minister Jens Spahn told a news conference Saturday. "This vaccine is the decisive key to end this pandemic ... it is the key to getting our lives back."
The first shipments were limited to just under 10,000 doses in most countries, with the EU’s mass vaccination programs expected to begin only in January. Each country is deciding on its own who will get the first shots — but they are all putting the most vulnerable first.
In Hungary, the first shipment of 9,750 doses — enough to vaccinate 4,875 people, since two doses are needed per person — arrived by truck early Saturday and were taken to the South Pest Central Hospital in Budapest. The government said four other hospitals, two in Budapest and two others in the eastern cities of Debrecen and Nyíregyháza, would also receive vaccines from the initial shipment.
French authorities said they will prioritize the elderly and the French medical safety agency will monitor the vaccine rollout for any potential problems. Germany, where the pandemic has cost more than 30,000 lives, was beginning with those over 80 and people who take care of vulnerable groups.
Spanish authorities said the first batch of the vaccine arrived in the central city of Guadalajara, where the first shots will be administered Sunday morning at a nursing home.
In Italy, which has Europe’s worst virus toll at over 71,000 dead, a nurse in Rome’s Spallanzani Hospital, the main infectious diseases facility in the capital, will be the first in the country to receive the vaccine, followed by other health care personnel.
In Poland, the first two people to be vaccinated Sunday will be a nurse and a doctor at the Interior Ministry hospital in Warsaw, followed by medical personnel in dozens of other hospitals. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said it was the patriotic duty of Poles to get vaccinated — a message directed at a society where there’s a high degree of vaccine hesitancy born from a distrust of authorities.
In Bulgaria, where fears about vaccines also run high, the first person to get the shot will be Health Minister Kostadin Angelov, who has promised an aggressive campaign to promote the benefits of vaccines.
In Croatia, a nursing home resident in Zagreb, the capital, will be the first to receive the vaccine on Sunday morning, according to state HRT TV. Authorities also planned to involve celebrities and other public figures in a pro-vaccination campaign.
"We have been waiting for this for a year now," Romanian Prime Minister Florin Catu said Saturday after the first vaccines arrived at a military-run storage facility.
The vaccinations began as the first cases of a new virus variant that has been spreading in the U.K. have been detected in France and Spain. The new variant, which British authorities said is much more easily transmitted, has caused European countries, the United States and China to put new restrictions on travel for people from Britain.
A French man living in England arrived in France on Dec. 19 and tested positive for the new variant Friday, the French health agency said. He has no symptoms and is isolating at home in the central city of Tours.
Health authorities in Madrid confirmed the U.K. variant in four people, all of whom are in good health. Regional health chief Enrique Ruiz Escudero said the new strain had arrived when an infected person flew into Madrid’s airport.
The German pharmaceutical company BioNTech is confident that its coronavirus vaccine works against the new U.K. variant, but said further studies are needed to be completely certain.
Gera reported from Warsaw, Poland. Associated Press writers Lorne Cook in Brussels, Angela Charlton in Paris, Joseph Wilson in Barcelona, Spain, Frances D’Emilio in Rome, Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, Karel Janicek in Prague, and Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, contributed to this report.