Germany, France and other European countries struggling to accelerate their Covid-19 vaccination programmes are under growing pressure to expand their efforts as other EU governments set more demanding targets and prove more effective at deploying available supplies.
Denmark and Sweden are aiming to fully inoculate every adult that wants it by the end of June — a month before the UK and well ahead of Germany and France, which are sticking to the EU target of vaccinating 70 per cent of adults by September.
Delays in using available vaccine doses in Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands stand in contrast with rapid deployment in Denmark, Estonia and Lithuania, indicating that supply bottlenecks are not the only reason for the EU’s relatively slow rollout.
With the EU expecting vaccine supplies to triple to 300m doses in the second quarter, attention is switching from its flawed procurement process to whether member states are prepared to massively expand their vaccination capacity in the space of a few weeks. EU leaders will discuss their vaccination efforts at a summit by videoconference on Thursday.
The Danish government has issued a tender for private companies to help quadruple its capacity to 400,000 shots a day — or 8.5 per cent of the adult population — from next month until the end of July. It is aiming to administer jabs to 3m people, the bulk of its adult population, in just seven weeks from the start of May.
“The 400,000 number is quite extraordinary for a country like Denmark with a population of only 5.8m,” said Thomas Kristiansen, a general practitioner in Ishøj, near Copenhagen. “But if there's the slightest hope that we could get 400,000 doses, we should plan for it.”
Sweden is contracting private health clinics and occupational health companies to help accelerate its vaccination drive, aiming to deliver nearly 4m jabs a month between April and June to an adult population of 8.2m.
“We have a lot of really well qualified staff,” said Emma Spak, head of health for Sweden’s Municipalities and Regions, which represents the authorities responsible for vaccine deployment. “We still think it is going to be possible but it is going to be a huge effort. It has never been done before.”
Other EU countries are also expanding capacity, albeit not to Nordic levels of ambition. The European Commission has urged member states “to deliver on the actual vaccination as quickly as possible and ensure that it follows the pace of deliveries”.
Mario Draghi, Italy’s new prime minister, has made speeding up vaccinations a priority for his government, with a plan to draw on the army, civil protection officials and volunteers. Micheál Martin, the Irish prime minister, said on Tuesday that his country would give at least one dose to 82 per cent of over-18s by the end of June.
Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, who has been tracking vaccine deployment in Europe, said Denmark’s eye-catching capacity target of 7 per cent of the population a day was unlikely to ever be needed. But, he said, it was a “manifestation of an all hands-on-deck-approach which is not necessarily what you see in all countries”.
Data compiled by the EU’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control suggest there are wide disparities in the effectiveness of national vaccine rollouts. Although the figures can be skewed by irregular reporting of vaccine deliveries, they show some countries are much better at promptly using the supplies than others.
Both Estonia and Lithuania have administered all doses delivered to them, according to ECDC data accessed on Wednesday. Spain, Slovakia, Poland, Portugal and Cyprus had all used more than 80 per cent
By contrast, Belgium, the Netherlands, Croatia, Latvia, Luxembourg, Bulgaria and Hungary had used two-thirds of their supplies or less. France has so far administered only 3.8m out of 7.7m doses received, one of the worst records in the EU, according to Covidtracker.fr, a website that uses the latest national data.
Denmark had used only half, according to the ECDC data, though figures from Denmark’s vaccination authority on Wednesday show 95 per cent usage.
In Germany, where criticism of the EU’s botched procurement strategy was strongest, the national vaccination strategy is coming under mounting scrutiny, amid reports that large numbers of jabs have accumulated in storage.
“The numbers show quite clearly that a lot of vaccine is hanging around unused,” Bärbel Bas, health policy expert for the Social Democrats, said in the Bundestag on Wednesday. She warned this could persist even after supplies increase in the second quarter.
Jens Spahn, the German health minister, acknowledged there was a problem. He said Germany’s 16 regions had the capacity to administer 300,000 doses of vaccine a day and were prepared to increase that to 500,000. Yet at present only 140,000-150,000 jabs were being given.
He said the regions had initially complained that they needed more supplies of vaccine from the federal government and the EU. “But now the doses are there — and so I assume that vaccinations will now pick up speed,” he told MPs.
One factor explaining the relatively low deployment rate is the slow take up of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine amid scepticism in some quarters about its effectiveness. German authorities acknowledged on Wednesday that only 15 per cent of the available AstraZeneca jabs had been administered.
In Germany, France and some other countries it is only being given to under-65s, forcing health authorities to line up other eligible cohorts for the jab amid doubts, including from French president Emmanuel Macron, about its effectiveness.
Hanno Kautz, spokesman for the German health ministry, said that by February 23, 1.54m AstraZeneca doses had been delivered but only 240,000 actually used. “Nothing should be left behind,” he said.
Kirkegaard said that with vaccine supply set to ease from late March — and the potential upside of newly approved vaccines coming on stream — the onus was on governments to improve deployment.
“You’d think with a federal election coming in Germany in September, they’d have every political incentive to work like clockwork. They’ve clearly failed.”
But Spak cautioned that supply problems were still a big risk and could still jeopardise ambitious targets in countries like Sweden. What Sweden now needed was “sustainable, predictable deliveries”.
“If it is like a Heinz ketchup bottle and all the supply suddenly comes in June, it is going to be very difficult.”
Additional reporting by Davide Ghiglione in Rome
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