EU countries on Sunday embarked on a vaccination campaign hailed as the "key" to defeating COVID-19, as the growing spread of a new coronavirus variant intensified fears the pandemic could wreak further devastation.
The jab is a glimmer of hope for a continent still battling the pandemic in earnest, with infection rates again on the rise, lockdowns imposed and Christmas and New Year plans left in tatters for many.
The numbers vaccinated in the initial days with the Pfizer-BioNTech jab are largely symbolic and it will be months before enough are protected to envisage a return to normal from the pandemic that has killed 1.76 million people worldwide since emerging in China late last year.
An AFP count showed the world passed 80 million confirmed coronavirus cases early Sunday.
In a sign of impatience, some EU countries began vaccinating on Saturday, a day before the official start, with a 101-year-old woman in a care home becoming the first person in Germany to be inoculated and Hungary and Slovakia also handing out their first shots.
A 96-year-old living in a care home in central Spain became the first person in the country to be vaccinated on Sunday, in an event broadcast by national television.
She felt "nothing" from the shot, Araceli Rosario Hidalgo Sanchez said with a smile after being injected.
In Italy, the EU country worst hit by the pandemic with 71,000 dead, 29-year-old nurse Claudia Alivernini was the first to receive the vaccination Sunday morning.
"It is with deep pride and a deep sense of responsibility that I got the vaccine today. A small gesture but a fundamental gesture for all of us," said Alivernini.
"Italy is waking up today," said Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. "This day will remain in our memory for ever."
EU commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said in a video on her Twitter account that the campaign start was a "touching moment of unity and a European success story" and said the EU had "secured enough doses for our whole population of 450 million people."
"The vaccination is the key to ending the pandemic," added German Health Minister Jens Spahn. "This is a hopeful day for Europe."
'Watching hour by hour'
France is due to begin its campaign in two care homes for the elderly in the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, a low-income area hard hit by Covid-19, and also in similar centres in the eastern city of Dijon.
Focusing its strategy on protecting the elderly and thus taking pressure off the hospital system, the government wants one million of the most vulnerable to be vaccinated by the end of February and 15 million people by the summer.
China, Russia, Canada, the United States, Switzerland, Serbia, Singapore and Saudi Arabia have also begun their vaccination campaigns.
Britain, which last week finalised the deal on leaving the EU, began its vaccination campaign amid much fanfare on December 8, three weeks ahead of the bloc.
But it was also in Britain that a new strain of the virus emerged and has already reached several other European countries as well as Japan and Canada.
The new strain, which experts fear is more contagious, prompted more than 50 countries to impose travel restrictions on the UK.
Echoing concerns from officials across the continent, Health Minister Olivier Veran said France has not ruled out imposing a third nationwide lockdown if coronavirus cases continue to rise after the holiday season.
"We are watching the situation hour by hour," Veran told the Journal du Dimanche with France registering around 15,000 new infections per day, triple the government's target of 5,000.
'Not the last pandemic'
There is concern that wariness among Europeans over the vaccine could impede its effectiveness, with a poll published in the Journal du Dimanche saying 56 percent of French people don't plan to take the jab.
In authoritarian post-Soviet Turkmenistan, where the government says no coronavirus cases have been detected, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov claimed that licorice root could cure Covid-19.
"Licorice stops the coronavirus from developing," former dentist Berdymukhamedov said, without citing any scientific evidence but emphasising the country has "sufficient reserves" in place.
In a video message World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was time to learn the lessons from Covid-19 as "history tells us that this will not be the last pandemic."