By Anita Komuves, Benoit Van Overstraeten and Isla Binnie
BUDAPEST/PARIS/MADRID (Reuters) - Hungary and Slovakia stole a march on their fellow EU nations as they began vaccinating people against COVID-19 on Saturday, a day ahead of rollouts in several other countries including France and Spain as the pandemic surges across the continent.
In Germany, a small number of people at a care home for the elderly were inoculated on Saturday, a day before the country's official start of its vaccination campaign.
Mass vaccination across the European Union, home to almost 450 million people, would be a crucial step towards ending a pandemic that has killed more than 1.7 million around the world, crippled economies and destroyed businesses and jobs.
Hungary administered the vaccine, jointly developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, to frontline workers at hospitals in Budapest, the capital, after receiving its first shipment of enough doses to inoculate 4,875 people. The first worker to receive the shot was Adrienne Kertesz, a doctor at Del-Pest Central Hospital.
Hungary has reported 315,362 COVID-19 cases with 8,951 deaths. More than 6,000 people are still in hospital with COVID-19, straining the central European country's care system.
"We are very happy that the vaccine is here," Zsuzsa and Antal Takacs, a couple aged 68 and 75, said while playing table tennis in a Budapest park.
"We will get the vaccination because our daughter had a baby in France last month and we want to go see them. We do not dare travel before we get the vaccine," Zsuzsa said.
In Slovakia, Vladimir Krcmery, an infectious disease specialist and member of the government's Pandemic Commission, was the first person to receive the vaccine, followed by colleagues.
Countries including France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Portugal and Spain on Sunday are to begin mass vaccinations, starting with health workers.
The distribution of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which was first rolled out in Britain earlier this month, presents tough challenges. The vaccine uses new mRNA genetic technology, which means it must be stored at ultra-low temperatures of around -80 degrees Celsius (-112°F).
NEW VARIANT IN FRANCE, SPAIN
France, which received its first shipment of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Saturday, will start administering it on Sunday in the greater Paris area and in the Burgundy-Franche-Comte region.
"We have 19,500 doses in total, which amounts to 3,900 vials. These doses will be stored in our freezer at minus 80 degrees (Celsius) and will be then distributed to different nursing homes and hospitals," said Franck Huet, head of pharmaceutical products for the Paris public hospital system.
The French government is hoping to get around 1 million people vaccinated in nursing homes during January and February, and then a further 14 million-15 million in the wider population between March and June.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved by the French medical regulator on Thursday.
France reported just 3,093 new coronavirus infections over the past 24 hours on Saturday, sharply down from the more than 20,000 cases on each of the previous two days, figures not seen since Nov. 20. But the seven-day moving average of daily new cases, which evens out reporting irregularities, is at around a one-month high.
France has a total of 2,550,864 confirmed COVID-19 cases, the fifth-highest tally in the world, while its COVID-19 death toll stands at 62,573, the seventh-highest.
In a concerning development, the Health Ministry said on Friday that a man who recently arrived from London had tested positive for a new variant of the virus that has been spreading rapidly in southern England and is thought to be more infectious. Sweden on Saturday also confirmed that it has detected the first case of the new variant in a traveller from the United Kingdom.
In Spain, Madrid health authorities said on Saturday they had confirmed four cases of the new variant of the virus, as the country received its first deliveries of the vaccine.
"Vaccination will start tomorrow in Spain, coordinated with the rest of Europe," Health Minister Salvador Illa wrote on Twitter. "This is the beginning of the end of the pandemic."
Doses will be taken by air to the Spanish islands and the North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, and by road to other regions of the country, where a total of about 50,000 people have died from the disease.
'WINDOW OF HOPE HAS OPENED'
Germany, meanwhile, said trucks were on their way to deliver the vaccine to care homes for the elderly, which are first in line to receive the vaccine with the official start of the vaccination campaign on Sunday.
A small number of people in Germany, however, received the vaccine on Saturday, with the first a 101-year-old woman in a nursing home in Halberstadt in the Harz hill range.
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country rose by 14,455 to 1,627,103, data from the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases showed on Saturday. More than 29,000 people have died, in total.
The federal government is planning to distribute more than 1.3 million vaccine doses to local health authorities by the end of this year and about 700,000 per week from January.
"There may be a few hiccups at one point or another in the beginning, but that is quite normal when such a logistically complex process begins," said Health Minister Jensen Spahn.
In Portugal, a truck escorted by police dropped off the first batch of COVID-19 jabs at a warehouse in the country's central region. From there, the nearly 10,000 shots will be delivered to five big hospitals.
"It is a historic milestone for all of us, an important day after such a difficult year," Health Minister Marta Temido told reporters outside the warehouse.
"A window of hope has now opened, without forgetting that there is a very difficult fight ahead."
(Reporting by Anita Komuves in Budapest, Benoit Van Overstraeten in Paris and Isla Binnie in Madrid; Additional reporting by Yiming Woo and Sudip Kar-Gupta in Paris, Arno Schuetze in Frankfurt, Catarina Demony in Lisbon and Radovan Stoklasa in Nitra; Writing by Pravin Char; Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Leslie Adler)