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Europe eyes measures to bolster uptake of COVID vaccines

In a December 10, 2020 photo, a medical staffer reads as he prepares to administer the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Cardiff, U.K.

JUSTIN TALLIS,POOL/TNS

By MACARENA MUNOZ, RAYMOND COLITT AND HELENE FOUQUET | Bloomberg | Published: December 29, 2020

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European governments are planning to track the number of people getting COVID-19 vaccines to help chart a path out of the crisis.

France will have a registry of people who get vaccinated, and Spain will track people who refuse to get inoculated against the disease, which has caused more than 400,000 deaths in Europe.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government is considering legislation to ensure unvaccinated people are treated fairly as the economy begins to open up. More than 21,000 people in the country have already received the shot developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.

After inoculations in Europe started with fanfare last weekend, authorities are now grappling with ways to ensure widespread uptake without sowing further discontent among the pandemic-weary public.

A broader rollout might have to wait. A vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford won't likely be approved in January, Noël Wathion, deputy executive director of the European Medicines Agency, told Belgium's Nieuwsblad newspaper, adding that the agency doesn't have sufficient information.

While Spain's register will be shared with other European partners, it won't be made public, Health Minister Salvador Illa said in an interview with La Sexta television. Taking the vaccine is voluntary in Spain, and the data will be "treated with the utmost respect for data protection," Illa said.

On Monday, Spain became the fourth European country to record more than 50,000 coronavirus deaths. The initiative could help the hard-hit country regain trust in its tourism sector, which was linked to the spread of the coronavirus after rules were relaxed in the summer.

France will also have a registry with the identity of people vaccinated and their health conditions.

The French government's campaign has gotten off to a slow start as officials look to build trust in the system. Polls show high levels of skepticism with less than half of the country's population intending to get the shot.

"I've said it before and I'm repeating it: the vaccine won't be compulsory," French President Emmanuel Macron said on Twitter. "The cost of the vaccine is completely covered. There are no charges. Let's be proud of our health system."

In Italy, politicians are worried about public resistance and are debating whether to make inoculations compulsory for workers like civil servants and medical personnel. Surveys have shown that significant parts of the population are wary of getting the shot.

Like most of Europe, Italy's official line is that getting the vaccine is a personal choice. But if voluntary uptake remains low, "we will have to adopt some countermeasures," Deputy Health Minister Pierpaolo Sileri said in an interview with the La Stampa newspaper on Tuesday.

In the first quarter, Austria is rolling out an electronic vaccination certificate in which patients and authorities can keep immunization records, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober told journalists in Vienna. The country plans to support its COVID-19 vaccine efforts with an information campaign.

"We won't convince fierce anti-vaxxers, but I do see many who are undecided," he said.

In Germany, officials are concerned about strains to the social fabric and have spoken out against preferential treatment for vaccinated people. While state entities are prohibited from discrimination, there's a grey area in the private sector.

"There will be areas where employers or people who provide public services say proof of vaccination or test results are an absolute prerequisite," Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller told ZDF television on Tuesday. "The more people get immunized, the more relief that brings to all."

German Health Minister Jens Spahn, who has surged in popularity ahead of next year's elections, echoed those comments.

"Many people are showing solidarity by waiting for others to be inoculated first. And in turn they can expect that those who have been vaccinated will show solidarity by being patient," Spahn told Funke Mediengruppe on Monday. "Nobody should claim special rights until everyone has had the chance to get vaccinated."

Such privileges may be warranted, but not just yet, according to Frank Ulrich Montgomery, chairman of the World Medical Association.

"We don't have thorough proof of immunity yet. And before we have that we won't be able to discuss any privileges for those who are immunized," he said in a Bloomberg TV interview. "We have a lot to discuss but nothing to decide."