Health care workers, the elderly and leading politicians got some of the first shots across the bloc to reassure the public that the vaccinations are safe.

Europe has launched an enormous COVID vaccination drive, with elderly patients and medics lining up to take the first shots in hopes of seeing off the pandemic that has crippled economies and claimed more than 1.7 million lives worldwide.

The region of 450 million people has secured contracts with a range of suppliers for more than two billion vaccine doses and has set a goal for all adults to be inoculated during 2021.

“It didn’t hurt at all,” said Mihaela Anghel, a nurse at the Matei Bals Institute in Bucharest who was the first person to get the vaccine in Romania.

“Open your eyes and take the vaccine.”

In Rome, Italy, five doctors and nurses wearing white scrubs sat in a semi-circle at the Spallanzani infectious diseases hospital to receive their doses.

“The message is one of hope, trust and an invitation to share this choice,” said one of the recipients, Dr Maria Rosaria Capobianchi, who heads the virology laboratory at Spallanzani and was part of the team that isolated the virus in early February.

“There is no reason to be concerned.”

Domenico Arcuri, extraordinary commissioner for the epidemic, said it was significant that Italy’s first vaccine doses were administered at Spallanzani, where a Chinese couple visiting from Wuhan tested positive in January and became Italy’s first confirmed cases.

World War II veteran Emilie Repikova receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at Military University Hospital  in Prague [David W Cerny/Reuters]

The numbers vaccinated in the initial days with the Pfizer-BioNTech jab are largely symbolic and it will be months before enough people are considered protected to envisage a return to normal from the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the first cases of a new virus variant that has been spreading rapidly around London and southern England have now been detected in France and Spain.

The new variant has caused European countries, the United States and China to put new restrictions on travel for people from Britain.

Germany’s BioNTech has said it is confident that its coronavirus vaccine works against the new UK variant, but added that further studies are needed to be completely certain.