ANALYSIS: How can Spain hope to beat coronavirus with ‘vaccine wars’ brewing?

Spain has pinned its hopes on an ambitious vaccination programme that is threatening to come off the rails as stocks run dry. Graham Keeley takes a look behind the politics to the situation on the ground.

ANALYSIS: How can Spain hope to beat coronavirus with 'vaccine wars' brewing?
Photo: AFP

Vaccine wars' makes a good headline, which has been taken up by almost every newspaper across Europe.

The reality is that it is an ugly business.

Has it really come to this? Sadly, it seems so.

As the row between the European Union and AstraZeneca rages on, Spain and other countries have reportedly turned their guns on Brussels, angered at the way it has handled the affair.

In a draft agenda for a meeting of regional health chiefs after COVID-19 cases have soared in Spain because of Christmas, Madrid criticised the EU, according to a report in El Mundo newspaper, which quoted the leaked document.

“It is the European Union that negotiates and signs the contracts, that is in charge of tracking them and making sure they are correctly fulfilled,” it quoted the government as saying in the document.

Shortly after this report appeared, Spain's left-wing government – which is conspicuously pro-European – rebuffed the newspaper, pledging its support for the way the EU has handled the shortfall in vaccines.

Spain's foreign minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya told a press conference: “Spain fully trusts that the European Commission will know how to defend the interests of all member states, in terms of both vaccine acquisition and handling of contracts with pharmaceutical (companies).”

Behind the politics, however, the numbers tell the real story about what is happening on the ground.

Around Spain, regional health authorities have halted or slowed down vaccination programmes.

In Cantabria and Madrid, officials have stopped vaccinating new people to focus on administering second shots to those who have already received a first dose.

Josep Argimon, the secretary for public health in Catalonia, warned that the “refrigerators will be empty” by the end of the week because doses are running out.

Last week, regional governments only received 196,000 of the 350,000 doses they expected.

Problems with supply of the vaccines are perhaps not surprising.

The question, however, appears to be what does it mean for the country's ability to return to some sort of normality?

Salvador Illa, who was health minister until he handed over to Carolina Darias this week, said Spain hopes that it will vaccinate about 70 percent of the population by July.

Yet, if the problems with vaccine supplies continue, this appears a wildly optimistic plan.

Ignacio Aguado, the deputy president of Madrid regional government, said that at the present rate of vaccinations, only 10 percent of the population of the Spanish capital would get the jab by the end of July.

Data released on Wednesday showed Spain had administered about 1.4 million doses, about 78 percent of its current stocks.

With new shipments expected on February 15th, authorities around Spain hope that they can regain the momentum of the vaccine programme.

Of course, another factor in this equation is whether Spain has managed to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections which have been steadily rising since the festive season.

As I write, Spain recorded 34,899 new coronavirus infections and 515 deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday.

The same day, the 14-day incidence dropped slightly for the first time in three weeks to 889 cases per 100,000 people.

The cumulative total of infections is 2.7 million, with the death rate standing at 57,806.

Immunologists have said Spain missed the boat to bring in a full home lock down after a lax Christmas sent coronavirus cases rising; tougher restrictions are needed to slow the pace of the pandemic in Spain.

Valencia, the worst hit in Spain with a two-week incidence standing at 1,438 per 100,000 people on Thursday according to health data, has ordered the closure of  cities including Valencia, Alicante, Torrevieja, Elche, Gandia, Benidorm and Orihuela among others from 3pm on Friday until 6am on Monday.

Other regions are following suit.

However, in perhaps the most worrying development, analysts have warned that as the vaccine roll out slows, new variants of COVID-19 may render the jabs we are receiving now less useful than we hoped.

The South African variant has been detected in Galicia, northern Spain, health authorities said.

Madrid reports that about 20% of cases in the city are from the so-called British variant.

This was supposed to be the year when everything got much better.



Graham Keeley is a Spain-based freelance journalist who covered the country for The Times from 2008 to 2019. Follow him on Twitter @grahamkeeley .





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Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.