Western Europe is heading toward a critical phase in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic as accelerating vaccination rates open up the prospect of easing lockdowns and reviving economies.
Germany and Italy administered a record number of COVID-19 shots this week, and France is betting that faster immunizations will lead to a gradual return to normal life. Across the European Union, there’s growing optimism that the worst is over, even as authorities continue to fight a third wave.
“Vaccination moves fast,” French Health Minister Olivier Veran said Friday on France Info radio. “More and more of us are being protected. I do believe in this.”
Letting businesses reopen more broadly will juice economic growth, and data Friday showed how vital that is, revealing the euro area fell into a double-dip recession at the start of the year. The U.S., which is well ahead of Europe in vaccinating its people, posted a far stronger performance in the first quarter, helped by a surge in consumer spending.
Returning activity to more normal levels will also help save businesses, jobs and incomes that have been threatened by lockdowns. For those politicians facing elections — like Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives in Germany — that’s a vital metric to win back support of frustrated voters.
After earlier shortages, supplies of COVID-19 vaccines are now pouring in. Deliveries to the EU are expected to nearly quadruple to more than 400 million doses in the second quarter, led by the shot from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE.
Vaccine production capacity doubled every month since January, EU Commissioner Thierry Breton, who’s leading efforts to ramp up production, told a German parliament committee on Thursday. He said that the EU would have enough doses to completely immunize 70% of adults by mid-July.
“The euro-zone economy hit the trough of the double-dip in February,” said Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg. As the vaccination rollout picks up pace, “we look for a strong bounce in activity from May onwards,” he said.
While hospitals remain dangerously full, there are signs the strains are easing. In Germany, the number of COVID patients in intensive care has declined for four straight days. Meanwhile, the country’s contagion rate is the lowest since mid-April, though it’s still well above a level that triggers stricter lockdown measures.
The European Commission has forecast 3.8% GDP growth in the euro area this year, a partial recovery from 2020’s record 6.6% contraction. But if the vaccination rollout keeps improving, it would give it grounds to raise projections when it updates them next month.
Still, the risks to vaccine campaigns were exposed by Sweden. On Friday, the Nordic country pushed back its vaccination target after pausing the use Johnson & Johnson’s shot beause of concerns about side effects.
Here’s a roundup of the key vaccine developments in Europe’s biggest economies:
Germany administered over 2 million doses in a two-day period this week. The surge was facilitated by an increase in supplies, which allowed inoculations to take place at private medical practices alongside state vaccination centers.
General practitioners administered a total of 730,000 doses on a record-setting Wednesday, when more than 1% of the population got a shot.
Merkel’s government is looking to drop regulations that determine who’s at the front of the queue by June, allowing all adults access to the shots. Nearly 27% of the population has had at least one.
Vaccinations in France have substantially accelerated as President Emmanuel Macron’s government reacts to intense public and political pressure.
Presidential elections are just a year away, and polls suggest a tight race between Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen — who called the slow start to the inoculation effort a “vaccination Waterloo.”
The staged rollout, targeting the most vulnerable and oldest first, has fueled frustration across a population still under a partial lockdown and curfew. The government this week expanded vaccination eligibility to a wider group and will open it to all adults from June 15.
Around 22% of the population have received at least one shot, and Macron has pledged that all willing adults will be vaccinated by the end of the summer.
Italy administered almost 500,000 vaccine doses on Thursday, meeting a key target set by Prime Minister Mario Draghi to ease restrictions.
General Francesco Paolo Figliuolo, Italy’s COVID emergency czar, on Thursday said that 60% of Italians will be fully vaccinated by mid-July, according to news agency Ansa.
Europe’s third-largest economy this week allowed outdoor dining and reopened museums and theaters as a first step of a gradual return toward normal life. More than 22% of the population has had at least one shot, according to Bloomberg’s coronavirus tracker.
Health Minister Carolina Darias has said that it expects 41.9 million shotsduring the second quarter, almost half of the supplies expected through the first nine months of this year.
The government aims to have vaccinated 70% of the population by late August. While the pace is still short of the government’s targets, it’s picked up in recent weeks, from just shy of 200,000 a day in late March to around 278,000, according to the latest seven-day rolling average. As of Thursday, 24% of the overall population had received at least one shot.
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