A shot in the arm: EU vaccine program struggles to speed up

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FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 4, 2021 file photo, frozen vials of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are taken out to be defrosted at the MontLegia CHC hospital in Liege, Belgium. EU leaders on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, during an EU summit video conference, will look at ways to improve the vaccine rollout, as they press pharmaceutical companies to respect the terms of their contracts with the 27-nation bloc. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)

BRUSSELS – Two months after its first vaccine shots, the European Union is still struggling to get its COVID-19 inoculation drive up to speed. EU leaders are meeting Thursday to jump-start the process, fearing that new virus variants might spread faster than Europe’s response.

At a video conference, the leaders will look at ways to improve the bloc's vaccine rollout, as the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, presses pharmaceutical companies to respect the terms of their contracts. Officials also want to try to fast-track vaccine authorizations.

More than 21 million coronavirus cases have been recorded and some 515,000 people have died from it in the EU's 27 countries, according to the European Centre for Disease Protection and Control.

Italy, France, Germany and Spain have the most coronavirus deaths in the EU, although all trail non-EU member Britain, which has Europe's highest virus death toll at over 121,000.

Given the spread of the disease — the Czech prime minister is worried about “a total catastrophe” at overburdened hospitals, Germany fears the impact of new variants, the Netherlands is seeing a rise in cases — there should be little appetite to ease up on travel and other restrictions too soon.

“The epidemiological situation remains serious, and the new variants pose additional challenges. We must therefore uphold tight restrictions while stepping up efforts to accelerate the provision of vaccines,” the leaders will say, according to a draft summit statement seen by The Associated Press.

But public pressure to relax measures is building. The Netherlands has eased some lockdown measures in what Prime Minister Mark Rutte called a calculated risk to make the year-long crisis “bearable.” Denmark just allowed high school students to partially return to classes.

In Belgium, Jean-Marc Nollet, head of the francophone Greens party that is part of the ruling coalition, openly said he no longer followed his own government's limits on social contacts because “I am a human being and human contact is something vital."