Too slow? Portugal lags behind in rolling-out priority Covid vaccines

With an atmosphere of heightened caution in the UK today due to fears that the South African variant (thought to render current vaccines less effective) could be in community transmission, the ECDC (European Centre for Prevention and Control of Diseases) has singled out Portugal as one of a group of countries ‘lagging behind’ in the rolling out of current vaccines.

Today (Monday February 1) is actually the moment the nation’s vaccination programme enters a new phase: prioritising seniors over the age of 80 in the north and areas around Lisbon who have ‘associated diseases’ but are not in old people’s homes.

Once these elderly people are given their first jabs, the programme will move on to the rest of the over-80s population.

Task force coordinator Francisco Ramos has described an average of 50,000 vaccines administered per day. This is far short of let’s say Israel’s 150,000 to 170,000 per day – though Israel is vaccinating round-the-clock, something Portugal isn’t.

Yet there may be some advantages in going slowly. For example, if variants appear that make the vaccine ‘less effective’, Portugal will not have ‘rushed far ahead’ jabbing everyone, only to have to call them all back for booster shots.

Right now in UK, urgent mass testing for the South African variant is going ahead in various neighbourhoods as 105 cases have been flagged, 11 of which have no connection with any kind of travel to South Africa, or other cases that have.

Portugal flagged one case of the South African variant in the Lisbon area just after Christmas (click here). We have not been updated on its progress, or otherwise.

According to the DGS health authority site 249,891 doses of vaccine have been administered so far in Portugal – a number that includes first and second shots; the ECDC appears to have slightly different data, putting ‘countries most advanced’ as Ireland (already having vaccinated 11.5% of its population), Iceland (3.8%), Malta (3.7%), Finland (3.1%), Slovenia (3%) and Poland (3%).

Portugal, says the ECDC, is lagging behind with only 1.6%.

For the time being, the only vaccines being administered here are Pfizer and Moderna. 

AstraZeneca has been given the green-light, but is overshadowed by supply issues. The first doses for Portugal should be arriving on February 9.

Meantime there have been plentiful ‘controversies’ of people receiving vaccines ‘ahead of their time’ – a number of them low-ranking county politicians and their immediate family members.

The flurry of media attention on this score has led secretary of state for health António Lacerda Sales pledge ‘zero tolerance’ for such situations in which all concerned may end up being ‘criminally disciplined’.

Said SIC television news, the crime of administering vaccines to anyone not on the priority list ‘could run to eight years’.

In a statement about countries’ vaccination performances generally, Andrea Ammon – director of the ECDC – has stressed that programmes should not be seen as a race for high numbers at the fastest possible speed. They should aim to be flexible and adaptable.

The whole issue of vaccine supply is ‘fraught’ right now, with the EU under fire for what has been seen as quite spectacular mismanagement of its vaccine procurement programme. Portugal’s lack of speed in rolling out its national programme has been compromised by these supply issues.