ANALYSIS: How can Spain hope to beat coronavirus with ‘vaccine wars’ brewing?

Spain has pinned its hopes on an ambitious vaccination programme that is threatening to come off the rails as stocks run dry. Graham Keeley takes a look behind the politics to the situation on the ground.

ANALYSIS: How can Spain hope to beat coronavirus with 'vaccine wars' brewing?
Photo: AFP

Vaccine wars' makes a good headline, which has been taken up by almost every newspaper across Europe.

The reality is that it is an ugly business.

Has it really come to this? Sadly, it seems so.

As the row between the European Union and AstraZeneca rages on, Spain and other countries have reportedly turned their guns on Brussels, angered at the way it has handled the affair.

In a draft agenda for a meeting of regional health chiefs after COVID-19 cases have soared in Spain because of Christmas, Madrid criticised the EU, according to a report in El Mundo newspaper, which quoted the leaked document.

“It is the European Union that negotiates and signs the contracts, that is in charge of tracking them and making sure they are correctly fulfilled,” it quoted the government as saying in the document.

Shortly after this report appeared, Spain's left-wing government – which is conspicuously pro-European – rebuffed the newspaper, pledging its support for the way the EU has handled the shortfall in vaccines.

Spain's foreign minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya told a press conference: “Spain fully trusts that the European Commission will know how to defend the interests of all member states, in terms of both vaccine acquisition and handling of contracts with pharmaceutical (companies).”

Behind the politics, however, the numbers tell the real story about what is happening on the ground.

Around Spain, regional health authorities have halted or slowed down vaccination programmes.

In Cantabria and Madrid, officials have stopped vaccinating new people to focus on administering second shots to those who have already received a first dose.

Josep Argimon, the secretary for public health in Catalonia, warned that the “refrigerators will be empty” by the end of the week because doses are running out.

Last week, regional governments only received 196,000 of the 350,000 doses they expected.

Problems with supply of the vaccines are perhaps not surprising.

The question, however, appears to be what does it mean for the country's ability to return to some sort of normality?

Salvador Illa, who was health minister until he handed over to Carolina Darias this week, said Spain hopes that it will vaccinate about 70 percent of the population by July.

Yet, if the problems with vaccine supplies continue, this appears a wildly optimistic plan.

Ignacio Aguado, the deputy president of Madrid regional government, said that at the present rate of vaccinations, only 10 percent of the population of the Spanish capital would get the jab by the end of July.

Data released on Wednesday showed Spain had administered about 1.4 million doses, about 78 percent of its current stocks.

With new shipments expected on February 15th, authorities around Spain hope that they can regain the momentum of the vaccine programme.

Of course, another factor in this equation is whether Spain has managed to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections which have been steadily rising since the festive season.

As I write, Spain recorded 34,899 new coronavirus infections and 515 deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday.

The same day, the 14-day incidence dropped slightly for the first time in three weeks to 889 cases per 100,000 people.

The cumulative total of infections is 2.7 million, with the death rate standing at 57,806.

Immunologists have said Spain missed the boat to bring in a full home lock down after a lax Christmas sent coronavirus cases rising; tougher restrictions are needed to slow the pace of the pandemic in Spain.

Valencia, the worst hit in Spain with a two-week incidence standing at 1,438 per 100,000 people on Thursday according to health data, has ordered the closure of  cities including Valencia, Alicante, Torrevieja, Elche, Gandia, Benidorm and Orihuela among others from 3pm on Friday until 6am on Monday.

Other regions are following suit.

However, in perhaps the most worrying development, analysts have warned that as the vaccine roll out slows, new variants of COVID-19 may render the jabs we are receiving now less useful than we hoped.

The South African variant has been detected in Galicia, northern Spain, health authorities said.

Madrid reports that about 20% of cases in the city are from the so-called British variant.

This was supposed to be the year when everything got much better.



Graham Keeley is a Spain-based freelance journalist who covered the country for The Times from 2008 to 2019. Follow him on Twitter @grahamkeeley .





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Covid deaths in Sweden ‘set to rise in coming weeks’

The Public Health Agency of Sweden has warned that the number of weekly Covid deaths is set to rise, after the number of people testing positive for the virus rose for the sixth week running.

Covid deaths in Sweden 'set to rise in coming weeks'

According to the agency, an average of 27 people have died with or from the virus a week over the past three weeks. 

“According to our analyses, the number who died in week 27 (July 4th-July 11th), is more than died in week 26 and we expect this to continue to grow,” the agency wrote in a report issued on Thursday. 

In the week ending July 17th (week 28), 4,700 new cases of Covid-19 were registered, a 22 percent rise on the previous week. 

“We are seeing rising infection levels of Covid-19 which means that there will be more people admitted to hospital, and even more who die with Covid-19,”  said Anneli Carlander, a unit chief at the agency. “The levels we are seeing now are higher than they were last summer, but we haven’t reached the same level we saw last winter when omicron was spreading for the first time.” 

While 27 deaths a week with for from Covid-19 is a rise on the low levels seen this spring, it is well below the peak death rate Sweden saw in April 2020, when more than 100 people were dying a day. 

The number of Covid deaths recorded each week this summer. Source. Public Health Agency of Sweden
A graph of Covid deaths per day since the start of the pandemic shows that the current death rate, while alarming, remains low. Photo: Public Health Agency of Sweden

Carlander said that cases were rising among those in sheltered accommodation for the elderly, and also elderly people given support in their own homes, groups which are recommended to get tested for the virus if they display symptoms. The infection rate among those given support in their homes has risen 40 percent on last week. 

This week there were also 12 new patients admitted to intensive care units with Covid-19 in Sweden’s hospitals.  

The increase has come due to the new BA.5 variant of omicron, which is better able to infect people who have been vaccinated or already fallen ill with Covid-19. Vaccination or a past infection does, however, give protection against serious illness and death.