Only fraction of people to get vaccine by end of March
Only a fraction of people in Luxembourg will receive the coronavirus vaccine this winter, data made available to the Luxembourg Times showed on Thursday, an indication that it may take many more months to fight the pandemic even now that inoculations have started.
The European Union has allowed Luxembourg to vaccinate 36,000 people by the end of March - some 6% of the population - as part of the bloc's joint programme to roll out the treatment across its 27 members.
"As of now, the Grand Duchy has been granted vaccines by the European regulatory mechanism to vaccinate some 36,000 people by the end of March," a spokeswoman for the health ministry told the Luxembourg Times in an email on Wednesday.
On Monday, two nurses were the first to receive the vaccine after the first 9,700 vaccines arrived in the country. Some 1,200 people have since received the drug, the government said on Wednesday. Covid-19 has killed 495 people in the country since the start of the pandemic.
Ultimately, Luxembourg will receive 1 million doses of the vaccine for its its 630,000 residents, as well as the cross-border workers in healthcare, who can also receive the jab in the Grand Duchy.
But that number includes vaccines that have yet to receive regulatory approval, making it unclear when the roll-out can happen. Brussels has signed contracts with several manufacturers for the delivery of two billion vaccine doses, which it will then distribute among its members.
Yet so far, the only vaccine available is the one jointly developed by pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech.
Asked whether Luxembourg has ordered more doses beyond the EU procurement schedule, the spokeswoman said that the country "also submitted an additional request to BioNTech/Pfizer, but to my knowledge no response has been received yet."
Scientists believe that 70% of people need to be vaccinate to achieve herd immunity, the level at which so many people are immune to the disease that it can no longer spread through the population.
"We cannot name a time when this will be the case in this country. This depends on how fast we get vaccinated," the spokeswoman said.
By the end of March, just 6% of the population would have received the vaccine, though that percentage is likely to be lower if some cross-border workers - which Luxembourg heavily depends on - are included.
Luxembourg started its vaccination programme two days after Germany, a delay due to the fact that Pfizer was not able to deliver directly to hospitals for this first delivery, but to a central location only, the spokeswoman said. The exact delivery date had been unclear, she said.
"From 11 January , the next delivery is set to arrive and then we will have a series of deliveries every week, so that by the end of January we will be able to vaccinate 12,000 people", the spokeswoman said.
The arrival of other vaccines, such as those by Moderna and AstraZeneca depends on the approval of the European Medicines Agency, the spokeswoman said. The UK, which gave the green light for the Pfizer shot well ahead of the EU, has already okayed the AstraZeneca vaccine.
EMA approved the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine on 21 December after pressure from governments - especially Germany - to speed up the process. Approvals for other vaccines are also in the pipeline, although it is unlikely that EMA will approve AstraZeneca's product in January.
Luxembourg High Commissioner for National Protection Luc Feller said last week that the vaccination programme was off to a slow start and that the numbers of expected deliveries were "decreasing every day".
On Tuesday, the EU announced it would buy another 100 million doses of the vaccine that was developed in Germany and is produced in Puurs, Belgium. Overall, that would amount to 300 million doses.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has urged European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to allow six doses out of one vaccine vial instead of five due to the slow start, Reuters reported on Wednesday.
Italy has unilaterally started doing so already, following the examples of the UK, the US and Israel, Reuters reported.
Criticism has also emerged in Belgium due to the slow start of the vaccination programme. France had only vaccinated 119 people as of Wednesday, partly due to bureaucratic hurdles such as a written consent that is required and strong scepticism among the population.
The UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace on Thursday announced the country would get the military involved to have 250 teams of combat medics administer up to 750,000 vaccinations a week.