ROME – Sometime over the next few days, the Vatican is expected to begin distributing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to citizens and employees, with priority given first to medical personnel, those with specific illnesses, and the elderly, including retired employees.
Details of the rollout remain scant, though some indications have been given over the last few days.
Speaking to Italian newspaper Il Messaggero last week, Andrea Arcangeli, director of the Vatican’s health and hygiene office, said that “It’s a question of days” before the vaccine doses arrive and they can begin distributions.
“Everything is ready to immediately start our campaign,” he said, saying the Vatican will follow the same guidelines as the rest of the international community, including Italy, offering the vaccine first to people “on the front line, such as doctors and healthcare personnel, followed by public utility people.”
“Then there will be Vatican citizens who suffer from specific or disabling pathologies, then the elderly and fragile and gradually all the others,” he said, noting that his department has also decided to offer the vaccine to the families of Vatican employees.
The Vatican has roughly 450 residents and some 4,000 employees, around half of whom have families, meaning they are expecting to provide nearly 10,000 doses.
“We have enough to cover our internal needs,” Arcangeli said.
Explaining the reason for choosing the Pfizer vaccine rather than the Moderna vaccine, which was approved for use by the European Commission Jan. 6, Arcangeli said it was a matter of timing, since Pfizer was “the only vaccine that’s approved and available.”
“Later, if there is need, we can also use other vaccines, but for now we are waiting for Pfizer,” he said, adding that he plans to get the vaccine himself, because “it’s the only way we have to get out of this global tragedy.”
Asked whether Pope Francis, one of the most outspoken advocates for equitable vaccine distribution, will be vaccinated, Arcangeli said “I imagine he will do it,” but said he can offer no guarantees since he is not the pope’s doctor.
Traditionally, the Vatican has taken the position that the pope’s health is a private matter and does not provide information about his care.
Noting there’s a large “no-vax” portion of global society who resist the vaccines, either out of suspicion of being rushed and potentially unsafe, or for moral reasons linked to the fact that at various phases of development and testing the vaccines utilized stem cell lines remotely derived from aborted fetuses,
Arcangli said he understands why there might be hesitation.
Nevertheless, he insisted that the vaccines “are the only chance we have, the only weapon at our disposition to keep this pandemic under control.”
Each of the vaccines were extensively tested, he said, noting that while in the past it took years to develop and experiment with a vaccine before putting it out, the collective investment of the global community amid the coronavirus pandemic meant that “the trials could be carried out more quickly.”
Excessive fear over the vaccines is “the fruit of disinformation,” he said, criticizing social media for amplifying “the words of people who have no competence to be able to make scientific statements and this ends up sowing irrational fears.”
“Personally, I have a lot of faith in science and I am more than convinced that the vaccines available are safe and do not involve risks,” he said, adding, “The end of the tragedy we are living depends on the spread of the vaccines.”
Amid ongoing debate among Catholic faithful, including bishops, about the morality of the COVID-19 vaccines, the Vatican Dec. 21 issued a clarification greenlighting the use of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, despite the fact that they were developed using cell lines derived from fetuses aborted in the 1960s.
The reason for this, the Vatican said, is that not only is the cooperation in the original abortion so remote that it is not a concern in this case, but when an “ethically irreproachable” alternative is not available, vaccines using cells from aborted fetuses is permissible when there is a “grave threat” to public health and safety, such as COVID-19.
Italy itself is also in the midst of its own vaccine campaign. The first round of doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrived in the country Dec. 27, going first to healthcare personnel and those living in rest homes.
Currently, some 326,649 people have been vaccinated, meaning that just under 50 percent of the 695,175 delivered doses have already been administered.
Over the next three months, Italy will receive another 1.3 million doses, with 100,000 arriving in January, 600,000 in February, and an additional 600,000 in March, with priority given to citizens over 80, to the disabled and their caregivers, as well as people suffering various illnesses.
Speaking to Italian newspaper La Reppublica, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life and head of the Italian government’s commission for care of the elderly amid the coronavirus, echoed Francis’s frequent call for the equitable distribution of the vaccines worldwide.
In December, the Vatican’s coronavirus taskforce and the Pontifical Academy for Life published a joint statement urging greater international collaboration in ensuring the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines not only in rich western nations, but also in poor countries unable to afford it.
Paglia called for an effort to overcome what he termed “any logic of ‘vaccine nationalism,’ which places states in antagonism to assert their prestige and take advantage at the expense of poorer countries.”
The priority, he said, “should be to vaccinate certain people in all countries rather than all people in certain countries.”
Referring to the no-vax crowd and their reservations about the vaccine, Paglia said to be vaccinated in this case is “a responsibility that each one must assume. Obviously according to the priorities defined by the competent authorities.”
“The protection not only of one’s own health, but also of public health is at stake,” he said. “Indeed, vaccination reduces on one hand the possibility of infecting people who will not be able to receive it due to already precarious health conditions for other reasons and on the other the overload of the health systems.”
Asked whether the Catholic Church was taking sides with science in the case of the vaccines, Paglia said the Church “is on the side of humanity, making critical use of scientific data as well.”
“The pandemic reveals to us that we are fragile and interconnected, as people and as a society. To get out of this crisis we must join forces, ask politics, science, civil society, for a great joint effort,” he said, adding, “The Church, for its part, invites us to work for the common good, [which is] more than ever indispensable.”
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