By Emma Pinedo
MADRID (Reuters) - Spanish doctors and health experts expressed frustration on Monday at the slow start to the country's campaign to inoculate people against COVID-19, with fewer than 90,000 people vaccinated since the EU approved a vaccine two weeks ago.
Some 82,834 people in Spain have received the first dose of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine so far, health minister Salvador Illa told reporters on Monday.
"We have received the third shipment of the vaccine... and hope to reach cruising pace in our vaccination campaign in the coming weeks," Illa said, adding that the objective was to have between 15 and 20 million Spaniards vaccinated by May-June.
"We still recommend administering the vaccine's second dose in the period indicated by BioNTech-Pfizer," Illa noted. The United Kingdom recently opted to use up its vaccine stock to give more people a single inoculation, a strategy Germany is also studying.
The vaccine developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech cleared EU regulatory hurdles on Dec. 21 and vaccinations began on Dec. 27, but the process has been slow and cumbersome, prompting criticism in several member states including Germany and France.
In Spain, the vaccination campaign has been partially interrupted by a long New Year weekend, with many health sector workers still on holiday and some nursing home residents away visiting relatives. Several regions also complained of delays in receiving the vaccines last week.
"It has been quite disappointing and worrying. It was the perfect opportunity to give a boost to the fight against the virus and to set an example," Quique Bassat, an epidemiologist and researcher at the Barcelona Institute for Global Heath, told Reuters.
Echoing such frustration, French officials urged a faster rate of vaccinations on Monday, while Germany's health minister has come under fire over a shortage of vaccines there and the slow inoculation campaign.
With health a regional government competence in Spain, many regions have not published their own data yet, although Illa gave the first nationally compiled data today.
However, a compilation of the more granular data available in some of Spain's most populous areas shows the number of shots administered during the week was much lower than the 350,000 doses shipped, with big differences between regions.
Madrid had only vaccinated over 3,000 people as of Saturday from the 48,000 doses it received, while in Catalonia, where 60,000 vaccines are sent every week, only 8,293 people have been vaccinated so far.
The northwestern region of Galicia had vaccinated 9,500 people as of Sunday, about half of the 18,000 vaccines the region is due to receive each week. In the Canary Islands, 4,593 people had been inoculated by Saturday, 30% of people targeted in the first phase, using a third of their weekly doses.
"Some regions have performed reasonably well ... others have been slower. There is a gap and it causes us a certain degree of frustration," doctor Amos Garcia Rojas, head of the Spanish Association of Vaccinology, told Reuters.
Madrid regional health official Enrique Ruiz Escudero said they intend to accelerate to administering 24,000 shots a week, while the rest of their weekly stock would be used as a second dose.
Catalan regional authorities, which plan to give shots to 748,000 of its 7.5 million inhabitants within 12 weeks, have pledged to give inoculations every day of the week to accelerate the process.
"We are confident we can achieve this," Josep Maria Argimon, Catalonia's regional head of public health, told a news conference.
With holiday season not over in Spain until after Epiphany day on Wednesday, some experts remained wary.
"It is incomprehensible that there are not enough staff and resources to continue to vaccinate every day. I think this is a big scandal," Manuel Perez-Alonso, Professor of Genetics at the University of Valencia, wrote on Twitter.
(Reporting by Emma Pinedo; Additional reporting by Cristina Sanchez, Inti Landauro, Joan Faus and Clara-Laeila Laudette; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Alistair Bell)