Vaccine rollout in Europe ‘unacceptably slow’, says WHO

National campaigns struggle to take off in Europe as new wave of infections takes hold

The rollout of vaccines in Europe is "unacceptably slow" and countries must reduce any barriers standing in the way of administering more jabs, the World Health Organisation has said.

It comes as a fresh wave of infection takes hold in the continent and a string of countries tighten restrictions in a bid to curb infection.

"Vaccines present our best way out of this pandemic. Not only do they work, they are also highly effective in preventing infection. However, the rollout of these vaccines is unacceptably slow," the WHO's regional director Hans Kluge said in a statement.

“And as long as coverage remains low, we need to apply the same public health and social measures as we have in the past, to compensate for delayed schedules.”

He urged countries to ramp up manufacturing, reduce barriers to vaccination, and use “every single vial we have in stock, now”.

Vaccine deliveries to the European Union are set to increase this month, as production capacity expands and the first deliveries of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine arrive on April 19th.

However, national rollouts across the bloc are a mixed picture, with some countries struggling to scale up the rate at which they administer doses.

France set a record last week of 400,000 doses given in a single day, a rate slightly higher than Ireland's record daily rate of 27,427 doses as a proportion of the population.

AstraZeneca delay

But some national rollouts were slowed by the temporary suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine and decisions to limit its use to certain age groups, which the European Medicines Agency has said are not supported by the available scientific evidence.

There is widespread frustration in Germany at the slow pace of the rollout, which saw an average of 277,741 people vaccinated each day last week, the population equivalent of about 15,700 in Ireland, with criticisms of ill-functioning booking systems and excessive red tape.

In Madrid, the regional authority shut vaccination centres for four days to give staff Easter holidays, ignoring a plea from the national government to keep them open.

Meanwhile in the Netherlands, regional health board chief André Rouvoet suggested opening up vaccination beyond the current priority groups of people aged 60-64, or with obesity or Down Syndrome, after 135,000 doses were not used last week because too few people made appointments.

“We should be using the available vaccines as soon as we can,” Mr Rouvoet told local media. “Nobody benefits from vaccines being left unnecessarily on the shelf.”

Stark inequality

Across the continent there is stark inequality in the number of vaccines that have been administered. The United Kingdom, Malta, Serbia and Hungary have given out more than 30 jabs per 100 people, while in Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine the rate is in the low single digits. The EU average is roughly 17 jabs per 100, similar to Ireland's rate.

Mr Kluge, of the WHO, appealed to governments to share doses with countries that need them more once health workers and the vulnerable had been vaccinated, while urging caution on relaxing public health measures.

“My message to governments in the region is therefore that now is not the time to relax measures,” he said. “We can’t afford not to heed the danger. We have all made sacrifices, but we cannot let exhaustion win. We must keep reining in the virus.”

In April, May and June, the EU is expecting over three times the amount of vaccine doses to be delivered than have arrived in total to date. It has hardened export controls, and internal markets commissioner Thierry Breton has suggested that Britain should not expect to receive any AstraZeneca doses made in the EU until the company delivers its missed commitments to the bloc.