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VACCINE

Spain’s vaccine drive stumbles as stocks run dry

With tensions soaring in Europe over vaccine supply shortages, the crisis has come to a head in Spain with regional vaccination campaigns delayed or even halted as doses run out.

Spain's vaccine drive stumbles as stocks run dry
A laboratory technician stores vaccines at a distribution centre in Granada. Photo: AFP

As worldwide cases soar past 100 million, global governments are scrambling to get their hands on scarce vaccine supplies, with a bitter row erupting between Brussels and London over the AstraZeneca jab.

Although Spain secured early supply deals, delays in shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have piled pressure on its 17 regions, which are responsible for managing the pandemic.

“We have had to suspend new first doses for at least the next two weeks due to lack of vaccine,” Ignacio Aguado, deputy head of the Madrid region, said Wednesday, urging the government “to move heaven and earth” to get more supplies.

Catalonia's health chief also said the region had practically finished its reserve supplies, warning that within days “the refrigerators will be empty”.

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

And at the weekend, the southern Andalucia region halted its programme because its strategic supplies were almost used up.

“Since no vaccines arrived last week, we had to draw on the strategic reserve that was gradually running out, so we stopped at the weekend so we could continue on Monday with what was left,” a regional health ministry source told AFP.

By Tuesday afternoon, the central government had sent in emergency supplies and the campaign resumed.

“If the health ministry hadn't sent this new shipment of 79,500 vaccines, we would have had to stop completely,” he said.

'Lot of criticism'

Spain has suffered one of the highest infection rates in Europe, counting more than 2.7 million cases and over 58,000 deaths and currently has one of the worst incidence rates of nearly 900 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.

Health ministry figures late Friday showed it has administered just over 83.3 percent of the 1.76 million vaccines received as part of the EU's vaccination plan.

Nearly 1.4 million people have received at least one shot, while nearly 252,000 have had the second jab.

And the shortages look set to continue.

“Last week we received 50 percent of what we should have received and this week.. we're going to experience the same, so Madrid cannot continue vaccinating healthcare professionals,” regional health chief Enrique Ruiz Escudero told MPs on Thursday.

Other regions also said they had only received half the expected supply and had only salvaged their campaigns thanks to their strategic reserves.

“When we said we were going to put vaccines in reserve, we had a lot of criticism, saying why didn't we just use all of the vaccine instead of reserving some?” said the Andalusian health ministry source.

“It turns out we were right.”

Uncoordinated

But medical professionals said both the government and the regions were at fault, with multiple vaccine strategies meaning it had been rolled out in an unbalanced way that sometimes left the most vulnerable exposed.

“On the one hand, fewer vials or doses than expected are arriving. On the other hand, it was 'every man for himself' to avoid being last in the vaccination rankings,” said Angela Hernandez, deputy head of Madrid's AMYTS doctors union.

The government was at fault for trusting the supply would turn up as promised, “and for not coordinating a joint, equitable plan with the regions”.

And the regions should have prioritised vulnerable groups rather than those which were logistically easiest.

“They should have set aside enough doses to finish vaccinating care home residents and staff before moving on to healthcare professionals,” Hernandez said.

Among healthcare staff, those with the highest exposure should have been prioritised, she said, flagging Madrid's “lack of coordination which had left frontline staff without the possibility of being vaccinated for at least two weeks”.

“With such a precious commodity, no effective treatment, and production and distribution problems on a global scale, we should have seen this coming,” she said.

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COVID-19

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.

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