THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.
BERLIN (AP) — Amid signs that more infectious coronavirus variants are spreading unchecked across Europe, countries across the continent are struggling to speed up vaccine efforts, hampered by limited supplies and creeping skepticism about one of the available shots.
Germany’s health minister said Wednesday that the virus variant first detected in Britain last year now accounts for more than a fifth of all positive tests in his country. The variant has increased from 6% of the cases to more than 22% in just two weeks.
“That means, as we’ve seen in other countries as well, the share of infections with this virus variant roughly doubles each week,” Health Minister Jens Spahn told reporters in Berlin. “We have to assume that the variant could soon become the dominant one here too.”
In Slovakia, which has seen the highest rate of virus deaths per population in the world, authorities said the variant first identified in Britain was found in 74% of its positive samples in a test.
Scientists say the U.K. variant appears to spread more easily and is likely more deadly, but so far the existing vaccines appear to be effective against it. A variant first detected in South Africa and now also found in relatively few cases in Europe, however, has shown signs of being able to evade the immune response generated by AstraZeneca vaccine, adding to fears that some Europeans have expressed about that shot.
The vaccine rollout in Germany and the EU as a whole has been slower than in Britain and the United States, but Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged that everybody who wants to get the shot will be offered one by the end of the summer.
By Tuesday, about 2.9 million people had received their first shot in Germany and some 1.5 million — almost 2% of the population — had received a second dose.
Still, authorities in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, expressed concern that some people appeared less willing to the AstraZeneca vaccine than those made by Moderna or Pfizer.
“The authorized AstraZeneca vaccine isn’t a second-class vaccine,” the state’s health ministry said in a statement. “The vaccine shows a good effectiveness and is well tolerated.”
Reticence toward the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is only given to those under 65 in Germany, has been reinforced by reports that some people have complained about fevers and headaches afterward. Officials say such reactions are normal after vaccinations, show that the body’s immune system is responding and the symptoms should disappear after a day or two.
Spahn, the health minister, said if people didn’t want to get the AstraZeneca shots, he and others would gladly take it.
“If people who are offered it don’t take it, then we will offer it to the next person,” he said. “We’ll have 10 million doses of vaccine by the end of the week, for 80 million citizens. We’re still in a period of shortage.”
Authorities in Berlin opened the capital’s fifth coronavirus vaccination center, located inside an indoor cycling arena, on Wednesday. The vast Velodrom venue, which was built as part of Berlin’s failed bid for the 2000 Olympics, started with just 120 vaccinations but officials hope to increase that number to up to 2,200 per day.
Berlin needs to vaccinate more than 200,000 people every week to ensure everybody is immunized by the end of the summer, a target the city’s top health official, Dilek Kalayci, said can only be achieved if the supply of vaccine shots increases significantly so doctors’ practices can also begin administering shots.
Pfizer and German partner BioNTech said Wednesday they have finalized an agreement to supply the European Union with another 200 million doses of their COVID-19 vaccine.
The two companies said those doses — expected to be delivered this year, an estimated 75 million of them in the second quarter — come on top of the 300 million vaccine doses the bloc initially ordered. The EU’s executive Commission has an option to request a further 100 million doses.
Delays to planned deliveries of all three currently authorized vaccines have helped fuel dissatisfaction among European governments.
Last month, Pfizer said it was temporarily reducing deliveries to Europe and Canada while it upgraded production capacity at its plant in Belgium. The EU also had a public spat with AstraZeneca over getting fewer of its vaccine shots than anticipated. AstraZeneca’s chief blamed the lag on new factories needing to work out vaccine production issues.
“We are working relentlessly to support the further roll-out of vaccination campaigns in Europe and worldwide by expanding manufacturing capacity,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said Wednesday.
BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin noted that his company will initiate production at its new plant in Marburg, Germany, this month and has strengthened its manufacturing network with further partners.
“We are continuing to evaluate, together with governments, authorities and partners at all levels, how we might address an even higher future supply requirement for our vaccines,” he said.
On Tuesday, the European Medicines Agency said it had received a request from Johnson & Johnson for its coronavirus vaccine to be authorized. The EU medicine regulator said it could issue an opinion by mid-March. The J&J vaccine is given in one shot, while the three other vaccines required two shots spaced weeks apart.
At Berlin’s Velodrom, Ilse und Dieter Krueger expressed relief at finally getting their shot. The couple, who have been married for more than 60 years, were waiting in a large recovery room after being among the first to receive the Moderna shot.
“We can’t complain,” sagte Dieter Krueger. “Things are looking up.”