The small European nation that has 'beaten' COVID-19 with vaccines

The head of Portugal’s vaccine rollout has declared victory over the coronavirus after his country became one of the first in the world to fully vaccinate four out of every five residents.

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The European nation, which has been slowly opening up based on vaccination targets across the summer, reached the milestone this week and is expected to hit 85 per cent by the end of the month and scrap most COVID-19 restrictions.

“We have beaten this virus,” taskforce leader Vice-Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo said on Wednesday.

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© AP A tram conductor wearing a face mask drives through Lisbon’s Graça neighbourhood. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

“At last, the first battle is won and this is a great relief for all of us.”

Vice-Admiral Gouveia e Melo justified his optimism by pointing to falling infections despite the current state of reopening, even after a summer break where both Portuguese people and foreigners holidayed in the country in their droves.

According to the Our World in Data tracker, a higher percentage of the Portuguese population (81.54 per cent) is fully vaccinated than any other country in the world (except some small islands) closely followed by Malta (81.01 per cent) The United Arab Emirates (79.19 per cent) — which has the highest single-dose rate in the world — Qatar (75.70 per cent), Spain (76.10 per cent) and Singapore (76.01%).

But even with so many of Portugal’s roughly 10 million residents protected against COVID-19, the deputy director of Lisbon’s highly respected Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Miguel Viveiros, sounded a note of caution.

“We have controlled the disease,” he told 9News.com.au.

“Defeated the virus? It’s very optimistic from a microbiological point of view.”

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The biology professor highlighted three key reasons for his country’s vaccination success, the most important being the “insignificant” number of anti-vaxxers authorities had to deal with.

“People went through a difficult period after Christmas, so we experienced the other sides of the problem, from the news from the families, from our own experience,” He said, referring to the devastating winter peak when hundreds of Portuguese COVID-19 patients were dying every day and the country had the most daily cases per capita in the world.

“So when you go through a war, you know what are the consequences of this war.

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© AP An army nurse carries doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at a vaccination centre operated by the Portuguese armed forces at Lisbon University’s sports stadium in June. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

“And so the doubts that might arise from scientific uncertainties that are associated with vaccines are not enough to overcome the fact that we saw the emergency rooms flooded, we saw the traffic jams with ambulances.”

The other key factors were the well-coordinated practical side of the rollout, with mass vaccination centres and one simple, nationwide, online sign-up page and, critically, the supply of vaccines arranged by the European Union, which started as a trickle but became a flood over the European summer.

That is an experience no country would want to repeat, but Professor Viveiros said Australia and other countries with lagging vaccination rates could still learn from Portugal’s experience.

Principally, he highlighted the importance of good clear and transparent communication and a coordinated national approach — in this case aided by Portugal’s centrally run National Health System, compared to Australia’s state-based approach.

“This coherence, national coherence, the fact that we are a unified country from the north, south, even to the [autonomous islands of Madeira and the Azores], made a difference.

“… In public health, if you have 10 different approaches, you end up with 10 different problems.”

© AP Professor Viveiros said measures like mask-wearing and hand hygiene will continue to be important heading into winter. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Vice-Admiral Gouveia e Melo said the Portuguese should be truly satisfied with themselves, also pointing to low rates of vaccine hesitancy and denial.

But he wasn’t interested in comparing Portugal’s jab rate to other countries, saying he only cared about whether enough people were vaccinated to offer protection and, eventually, herd immunity, against the coronavirus.

He also had a stark warning for rich countries hoarding vaccines or deploying booster shuts while poorer nations remained virtually unprotected.

“We are over-vaccinating in richer countries and then there is zero vaccination in poorer countries,” he said, according to Reuters.

“I can’t agree with that — not only due to ethics and morals but because it’s not the best strategy and rational attitude.”

© AP Containers with 200,000 AstraZeneca vaccines are unloaded from a Hungarian government airplane at Lisbon’s military airport in July. Hungary sold the vaccines to Portugal, which sent them to Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa, and East Timor. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Portugal has access to the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, AstraZeneca’s jab and the one-shot Johnson & Johnson injection.

AstraZeneca has been restricted to older people but, compared to Australia, the mRNA jabs have made up a greater proportion of available doses and there has been significantly less attention focused on the extremely low risk — between about two and three in 100,000, of developing a rare blood clot condition.

Measuring COVID-19 vaccination status internationally is complicated due to the way different countries report their statistics.

While Australia and the UK only count people aged 16 and over, Portugal and most European nations calculate their percentages based on their entire population, including under 12s who aren’t yet eligible for jabs.

Over the past two weeks, Portugal has confirmed an average of 1200 COVID-19 cases and roughly nine deaths per day. About 500 COVID-19 patients are in hospital, roughly 100 of whom are in intensive care.

© AP A nurse prepares doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in Lisbon. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

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