Reuters::Hungary stole a march on its fellow EU nations as it started vaccinating its people against COVID-19 on Saturday, a day ahead of rollouts in countries including France and Germany as the pandemic surges across the continent.

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 developed by Pfizer and BioNTech to frontline workers at hospitals in the capital Budapest after receiving its first shipment of enough doses to inoculate 4,875 people, state news agency MTI said.

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 healthcare system.

“We are very happy that the vaccine is here,” Zsuzsa Takacs 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.

The Hungarian rollout came a day before countries including France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Portugal and Spain are planning to begin mass-vaccinations.

The distribution of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot presents tough challenges because it 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

France, which received its first shipment of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Saturday, will start rolling it out 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 administer vaccines to around one million people in nursing homes during January and February, and then to a further 14-15 million in the wider population between March and June.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved by the French medical regulator on Thursday.

Employees at work during the arrival of Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at an undisclosed location in North Rhine Westphalia, Germany December 26, 2020, one day before the country starts its vaccination programme. Mark Hermenau/Staatskanzlei des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen/Handout via REUTERSEmployees at work during the arrival of Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at an undisclosed location in North Rhine Westphalia, Germany December 26, 2020, one day before the country starts its vaccination programme. Mark Hermenau/Staatskanzlei des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen/Handout via REUTERSFrance reported more than 20,000 new COVID-19 infections on Friday for the second day running, something not seen since Nov. 20. The seven-day moving average of daily new cases, which evens out reporting irregularities, is at a one-month high of 14,969.

France’s number of confirmed COVID-19 cases now totals 2,547,771, the fifth-highest tally in the world, while its COVID-19 death toll stands at 62,427, the seventh-highest.

In a concerning development, the health ministry said on Friday that a Frenchman who recently arrived back in France from London had tested positive for the new variant of the virus, which has been spreading rapidly in southern England and is feared to be more infectious.

‘GETTING OUR LIVES BACK’

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 on Sunday.

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. The reported death toll rose by 240 to 29,422.

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.

“This vaccine is the key to defeating this pandemic. Here is the key to getting our lives back.”

Britain became the first country in the world to roll out the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine earlier this month.

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