The French government has defended its coronavirus vaccination policy against criticism that it is going far too slowly, with 516 vaccinations reported in the first week.
Government spokesman Gabriel Attal said the delay was down to logistics: teams had to visit elderly people in care homes and get each person’s consent.
The EU began vaccinating with Pfizer/BioNTech doses on 27 December.
By Sunday morning about 240,000 had been vaccinated in Germany.
The UK has become the first country in the world to start giving people the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine. About a million people have already been vaccinated with the Pfizer/BioNTech drug in the UK.
Gabriel Attal, quoted by French news website LCI, said the government was following scientific advice, prioritising the elderly in care homes.
“A more gradual launch is necessary for logistical reasons: you cannot ask these people to go somewhere else in the country, and the delay is also linked to a pre-vaccination consultation and getting consent. This takes a bit more time.”
France is among Europe’s hardest-hit countries in the pandemic. Its Covid-19 death toll so far is 65,037 – just behind Italy and the UK. French hospitals are treating 24,780 Covid patients, BFMTV reports.
Dutch not yet vaccinating
France launched its vaccinations last Monday, in line with the EU-wide roll-out. The Netherlands is the only EU country yet to start its vaccination campaign – the launch is set for 8 January.
Mr Attal insisted that the government was sticking to a target of a million people vaccinated by the end of January, as “we have just over two million doses ready”.
The French vaccination campaign “will really take off this week and get stronger”, he said. From Wednesday “94 medical centres in France will have more than 500,000 doses to give to health professionals”.
The website CovidTracker, which collates data from French health authorities, says that by 1 January 516 people had been vaccinated in France.
CovidTracker estimates that to hit the one million target, nearly 35,000 people would have to be vaccinated daily in France.
So far the EU has only authorised the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which presents logistical challenges as it has to be stored at -70C. It is made at a factory in Puurs, Belgium.
The German government expects the US-made Moderna vaccine to get EU authorisation on Wednesday, DPA news agency reports.
On Sunday LCI said French health professionals had sharply criticised the government’s handling of the vaccination campaign.
Epidemiologist Martin Blachier said “if I were president of the republic I’d be very hard on my health minister… This is the biggest fiasco we’ve ever had in the medical world. A logistical and communications fiasco.” He pointed especially to France’s failure to set up vaccination centres of the type now working in Germany.
France’s National Academy of Medicine said the government was taking “excessive precautions”.
In his New Year address, President Emmanuel Macron struck an urgent tone, saying: “I will not allow an unjustified slowness to set in without good reason.”
The EU was slower than the UK or US to authorise any of the vaccines. The European Medicines Agency, the regulator for the 27 EU member states, gave its approval for the Pfizer vaccine on 21 December, compared to 2 December in the UK and 11 December in the US.
Part of the difficulty in France stems from the widespread scepticism about the vaccination. In a 15-country poll carried out by Ipsos Global Advisor, just 40% of French respondents said they would be willing to have the vaccine.
This compares to 80% in China, 77% in the UK, and 69% in the US.
In Italy, by Sunday 118,554 people had been vaccinated, the national broadcaster Rai said.
But the vaccination rates vary from region to region. Densely populated Lombardy, the epicentre of Europe’s pandemic last March and still Italy’s biggest hotspot, has done 3.8% of its planned 80,595 vaccinations, in the first phase of Italy’s campaign.
The figures are higher in some other regions, such as Veneto (40.3%) and Piedmont (31%).
EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides says vaccine production needs to be ramped up to meet the huge global demand, but she has defended the EU roll-out so far.
“The bottleneck at the moment is not the volume of orders but the worldwide shortage of production capacity,” she told DPA news agency.
She noted that the EU had provided €100m (£90m; $123m) for German firm BioNTech to expand production.
The EU has ordered up to 300m doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, to be distributed across the 27 member states according to population.
When added to the EU orders for the Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines that makes 860m doses in all, to be spread among the EU’s 450m population.
The cost of the purchases is officially secret, but last month a Belgian official tweeted – and later deleted – vaccine prices, according to which the EU is getting the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine cheaper than the US, at €12 per dose, not €16 ($20).