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Health & Science

After Slow Start, Europeans Call For Quicker Vaccines Against COVID-19

A nurse prepares to administer the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Dr. Jean-Christophe Richard in La Croix-Rousse hospital, in Lyon, France, on Wednesday. Amid public outcry, France's health minister promised Tuesday an "exponential" acceleration of his country's slow coronavirus vaccination process.
A nurse prepares to administer the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Dr. Jean-Christophe Richard in La Croix-Rousse hospital, in Lyon, France, on Wednesday. Amid public outcry, France's health minister promised Tuesday an "exponential" acceleration of his country's slow coronavirus vaccination process.

From France to Germany to The Netherlands, Europeans are venting frustration over the pace of their COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

The European Union began administering the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Dec. 27 — two weeks after the United States and almost a month after the United Kingdom, which recently left the EU.

The Netherlands only just started Wednesday. A former senior health official there, Roel Coutinho, called the Dutch strategy "shameful" and warned it was "going to cost lives," according to the BBC.

Around the world, many pandemic-weary citizens have been awaiting vaccines against COVID-19. But in much of Europe, where some governments have passed successive rounds of restrictions to stop the virus' rapid spread, the public was anticipating more efficient vaccination programs.

Some of the strongest reactions are in France.

It has the EU's highest confirmed coronavirus case count and its second-highest death toll from COVID-19. Yet as of Wednesday, France has administered just 5,000 vaccination doses for its nearly 65 million people, according to Our World In Data, a website run by Oxford University. In terms of vaccine doses per capita, France is at the bottom of a chart on the data website, behind countries with much less wealth, including Mexico and Argentina.

French Health Minister Olivier Véran has tried to quell the uproar over the country's slower pace. "We're going to amplify, accelerate and simplify our vaccination strategy," he told France's RTL radio station. "We'll be vaccinating at the same rate as our neighbors within days."

Analysts say France has taken a cautious approach because of its large anti-vaccine movement.

Antoine Bristielle, a researcher with the Jean-Jaurès Foundation, a center-left think tank, says polls show nearly half the French say they won't get the vaccine.

"The main reason is that a lot of people don't believe in what the political institutions are saying," he says. "At the beginning of the epidemic there was a trust level of about 90% in scientific institutions and now its below 70%."

He says distrust grew after the government's initial confusing and disastrous handling of masks. Millions of masks ordered in previous years were lost and allowed to expire, leaving a dearth for health workers. The health ministry initially told citizens masks were not useful for them, before reversing itself and making them mandatory.

Writing in newspaper Le Figaro, French economist Antoine Levy called France's slow vaccine rollout a sign that the country's lauded public health care system has slipped from the top tier.

"The French state and French public administration tend to think that the way they act has to be the best and so they're not very keen to learn what's happening elsewhere," he told NPR.

Levy says, instead of presenting the vaccine as a way out of the pandemic, the government in a sense appealed to the anti-vaccine camp by being extremely cautious and highlighting possible risks.

Joel Balandraud is the mayor of Evron, a small town in western France, as well as a veterinarian. He has vaccinated herds of animals safely and efficiently during epidemics, he says, so why can't the government do the same for people?

"I am angry because since the beginning of the epidemic the state is not very proactive, not very fast," he says.

Balandraud says as a veterinarian in the home country of scientist Louis Pasteur, one of the fathers of immunology, he feels doubly ashamed.

"Today it feels like we forgot science in France," he says. "Instead of basing decisions on facts, they're basing them on opinions and fears."

Health Minister Véran has promised hundreds of new vaccination points within a week and he's loosened rules and cut red tape. "We want every French person who wants a vaccine to be able to get one," he said.

Citizens across Europe are blaming their national authorities for the slow start to mass vaccination programs. Some German politicians faulted the EU as it tries to coordinate vaccinations among 27 member states.

The European Commission, meanwhile, says it is working as fast as it can to approve a second vaccine, by Moderna, following the European Medicines Agency's recommendation on Wednesday.

For many Germans, the vaccines are not coming quickly enough.

Their country had earned world praise earlier in the pandemic for a lower COVID-19 death total than other nations, and recently it made headlines for swiftly setting up massive vaccination centers. Yet Germany now ranks behind several others, including Russia, the U.S., the United Arab Emirates and Israel, in the portion of its population that has received the shots.

Stefan Kornelius, political editor at Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, says Germans spent the Christmas holiday season quietly stewing as they waited for the EU to begin vaccinations.

"People want to see these vaccinations happening fast and quick and that's not taking place," Kornelius says.

Eleanor Beardsley reported from Paris. Rob Schmitz contributed to this report from Berlin.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.