EU begins mass coronavirus vaccination drive

The European Union has launched a mass coronavirus vaccination drive amid detections of new strains which are believed to be more contagious than the original.

The rollout began on Sunday, six days after the EU approved the use of a vaccine developed by US pharmaceutical firm Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech. It is the first coronavirus vaccine to be authorized by the EU.

In France, a 78-year-old woman received a shot at a hospital in a Paris suburb, becoming the first person in the country to do so.

France gives vaccination priority to elderly residents of care facilities and their staff. Next in line are other senior citizens and medical professionals. Others are expected to start receiving shots next spring.

Germany also began its nationwide inoculation effort. A 101-year-old care home resident who received the vaccine in Berlin said it is good to be vaccinated as many elderly people in nursing facilities have died.

In Italy, which has Europe's highest death toll from COVID-19 at more than 70,000, five medical workers at a hospital in Rome received the country's first shots.

They included a nurse, who said she has seen with her own eyes how difficult it is to fight the virus. She called on people to be vaccinated for the sake of their loved ones and communities.

People in Europe have become increasingly concerned as cases of new variants of the virus have recently been identified in the region and elsewhere.

World Health Organization Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan said last week that the virus has not mutated in a way that makes a significant impact on its susceptibility to therapeutics, drugs or vaccines under development.

The EU has contracts for up to 2 billion doses of coronavirus vaccines, including the one jointly developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.