Delivery delays force Portugal to extend first phase of vaccinations

LISBON (Reuters) - The first phase of Portugal’s vaccination plan against COVID-19 will be extended by around two months into April, the programme leader said on Thursday, as delivery delays mean the country will receive just half the expected doses by March.

FILE PHOTO: A medical worker receives the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine at Santa Maria hospital in Lisbon, Portugal, December 28, 2020. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

Portugal, where infections and deaths have spiked to record levels after Christmas, initially hoped to receive close to 3 million vaccine doses in the first quarter, but this figure has fallen to just 1.5 million due to delivery delays, vaccination taskforce head Francisco Ramos said.

He had said in December the original plan envisaged 950,000 people - health professionals, key workers, people over 50 with pre-existing conditions and key political figures - being fully vaccinated in January and February.

Under the new constraints, 810,000 people should be fully vaccinated by end-March and 520,000 will receive a first dose, Ramos said.

“The first phase will happen until April,” Ramos said, adding over-80s would now also be included in this phase.

“This will certainly not be the last change in the (vaccination) plan ... due to the uncertainty the availability of vaccines imposes on us.”

A total of 74,000 people, including care home residents and staff, have been fully inoculated in Portugal so far, all with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, Ramos said.

He said if the shot produced by AstraZeneca was approved by Brussels, Portugal could receive another 2.2 million doses by end of March and reach its revised goal.

AstraZeneca said last week it would reduce EU supplies in the first quarter due to production issues, and Pfizer warned of a temporary slowdown in shipments to the European Union in late January caused by changes to manufacturing processes, angering EU officials.

After criticism from lawmakers over politicians being included in the first phase of vaccination, the government said on Wednesday each state institution - from parliament to the courts - should say which workers it considers essential and in need of a vaccine.

Reporting by Victoria Waldersee, Catarina Demony, Sergio Goncalves; Writing by Victoria Waldersee; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Alison Williams