BRUSSELS — From Stockholm to Athens and from Lisbon to Warsaw, European Union governments are gearing up to receive a coronavirus vaccine later this week, even as cases keep rising in some parts of the continent.
The bloc’s drug authority, the European Medicines Agency, is expected to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Monday, setting off a logistical marathon the likes of which most of the authorities in the region have not had to contend with before.
The operation to buy, approve and distribute the shots across the European Union has been complex and politically charged, and the stakes could not be higher. The pandemic’s second wave is still raging in parts of the region, most Europeans are spending the holidays in some type of lockdown, and the bloc’s economies are in tatters.
If the vaccine mission is successful, it may bolster the credentials of the European Union, establishing its administration as a real force with executive powers and capabilities that can take on important tasks on behalf of its members. If not, the failure may spread acrimony and disaffection.
Already, the European Medicines Agency has come under intense scrutiny for the pace at which it has reviewed the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Britain granted the vaccine emergency approval weeks ago and then started rolling out its inoculation program, with the United States following not far behind.
In the end, the European agency decided to speed up the process, moving forward an approval meeting that had been set for Dec. 29. The United States has also approved a vaccine from Moderna, but the European agency will not address the application for authorization of that company’s shots until Jan. 6.
If the agency authorizes the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Monday, the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, is expected to rubber stamp the decision within 48 hours. That would be the green light for Pfizer to start distributing vaccines across the region.
The commission hands over responsibility for this first load as the cargo departs Pfizer factories in Puurs, Belgium, and in Mainz, Germany, headed for European capitals, most likely on Thursday. The company, which declined to answer detailed questions about transportation plans for security reasons, will play an active role in vaccine transport and storage in each country.
From that point on, each of the bloc’s 27 member governments will be responsible for distributing the vaccine to its population in a manner that fits each country’s needs, priorities and capabilities.
The first Europeans are expected to be inoculated on Dec. 27, 28 and 29.
The pressure to get this right, and to do so quickly, has been mounting as the European Union and its members try a collective approach in a critical node in the fight against the pandemic. Most countries have been more nationalistic.
The European approach began with the decision this summer to pool negotiating capital and to empower the European Commission and a board of representatives from every member country to reach agreements with pharmaceutical companies working on vaccines.
There has been criticism that the European Union, like the United States, did not order enough doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine when given a chance. But from a financial perspective, it appears that the approach did benefit the bloc: It is paying less than the United States for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
In Germany, the bloc’s biggest economy and home to BioNTech, the decision to empower the European Commission to negotiate a deal has attracted criticism, with some arguing that the country would have been better off going it alone. But most bloc members are midsize countries or smaller, and for them, the approach made sense. (As the clock counts down to Brexit, some may also see a potent political message here, with the bloc showing that there is strength in unity.)
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Answers to Your Vaccine Questions
With distribution of a coronavirus vaccine beginning in the U.S., here are answers to some questions you may be wondering about:
- If I live in the U.S., when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
- When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated? Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
- If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask? Yes, but not forever. Here’s why. The coronavirus vaccines are injected deep into the muscles and stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. This appears to be enough protection to keep the vaccinated person from getting ill. But what’s not clear is whether it’s possible for the virus to bloom in the nose — and be sneezed or breathed out to infect others — even as antibodies elsewhere in the body have mobilized to prevent the vaccinated person from getting sick. The vaccine clinical trials were designed to determine whether vaccinated people are protected from illness — not to find out whether they could still spread the coronavirus. Based on studies of flu vaccine and even patients infected with Covid-19, researchers have reason to be hopeful that vaccinated people won’t spread the virus, but more research is needed. In the meantime, everyone — even vaccinated people — will need to think of themselves as possible silent spreaders and keep wearing a mask. Read more here.
- Will it hurt? What are the side effects? The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection into your arm won’t feel different than any other vaccine, but the rate of short-lived side effects does appear higher than a flu shot. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. The side effects, which can resemble the symptoms of Covid-19, last about a day and appear more likely after the second dose. Early reports from vaccine trials suggest some people might need to take a day off from work because they feel lousy after receiving the second dose. In the Pfizer study, about half developed fatigue. Other side effects occurred in at least 25 to 33 percent of patients, sometimes more, including headaches, chills and muscle pain. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign that your own immune system is mounting a potent response to the vaccine that will provide long-lasting immunity.
- Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
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