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Most of Portugal is vaccinated. Will that protect it from the Omicron variant?

Portugal’s vaccine take-up is exceptionally high and a source of national pride, says MEP Manuel Pizarro.

By Ido Vock

In recent weeks, as Covid-19 has once again swept over Europe, much attention has been focused on poor vaccine take-up in countries such as Austria and Slovakia, both now back in lockdown. Yet one country stands out for the opposite reason, even among the better-performing EU member states: Portugal, which has the highest vaccine take-up of any country in the bloc.

86.6 per cent of the total Portuguese population has been double vaccinated. An astonishing 98 per cent of the eligible population – those 12 and older – have been immunised, close to the highest rate of any country in the world. A recent decision by the European Medicines Agency to recommend the vaccination of 5-12-year-olds will push the total inoculation rate well above 90 per cent once it is implemented.

“It is not so normal for Portugal to be able to say it is the best in Europe,” Manuel Pizarro, an MEP for Portugal’s ruling Socialist Party, quipped when we spoke recently. “Portuguese people are very proud of our vaccination success.”

The emergence of the Omicron variant, which some scientists suspect may be better able to evade vaccine-induced immunity than previous mutations, raises further questions about how effectively even well-vaccinated countries will be able to withstand a new wave of Covid-19. Pizarro, from Porto and a doctor by background, is positive that Portugal’s high coverage rate puts it in a better position than most to face the new variant. “It is likely that vaccines will still work well against Omicron.”

[See also: How a fourth Covid wave is crashing over Europe]

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Pizarro attributes Portugal’s success to a pro-vaccine consensus across the political spectrum, with virtually no politicians or parties opposed. “There is a widespread national consensus, even in the political arena, regarding the approach we have taken.”

That contrasts with some other European countries, where political factions have anointed themselves champions of the rights of the unvaccinated, either by openly opposing vaccination (Austria’s FPÖ) or by rejecting schemes intended to boost take-up, such as vaccine passports (France’s Marine Le Pen).

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In Europe, low vaccine coverage closely correlates with countries that were communist until the early 1990s. In Germany, most of the least vaccinated federal states are those of the former GDR. Yet in Portugal and Spain, the two western European countries with the most recent experience of far-right authoritarianism (both countries were dictatorships until the 1970s), take-up is among the highest in the bloc.

[See also: How is the world responding to the new Omicron variant of Covid -19?]

“We remember the fascist regime. People were very poor and health conditions were very bad – there was a high level of infant mortality, for example,” Pizarro said. “So perhaps the memory of those days works in a positive way because it encourages people to do things that we were not allowed to do before, when access to healthcare depended on wealth.”

Portugal’s exceptionally high take-up will make it one of a handful of countries in the world that will serve as a test case for what living with Covid-19 will look like under the best conditions conceivable – at least until scientists have a better idea of whether new boosters targeting “escape variants” will be needed. Like the rest of Europe, the country was hit hard in 2020 and the first half of 2021, recording about 18,400 deaths in total, at times overloading the hospital system.

Cases are now once again rising in Portugal, as in most European countries, though they remain below their January peak.

“I’m pretty confident that we [in Portugal] are not going to need the physical restrictions that Covid imposed [during previous waves],” Pizarro said. “We can cope with these numbers.”

Factors other than the headline inoculation rate will matter in the months to come. Evidence suggests that booster jabs reinforce immunity levels as they begin to dip around six months after the second injection. They may prove crucial this winter. Here, Portugal is performing slightly better than the EU average, with about eight booster jabs administered per 100 people by 24 November, though it remained far behind the UK (24) and Israel (44).

Prime Minister Antonio Costa has set a target of administering booster shots to 25 per cent of the population by the end of January. That may be too unambitious, depending on how far vaccine immunity wanes in the months after the second dose.

By contrast, in France, third doses will be required for vaccine passports to remain valid from mid-January. If a similar proportion of the population take up booster jabs as received the first two jabs, that will mean about 90 per cent of the eligible population in France will have an extra degree of protection.

Portugal, ruled by the Socialists since 2015, had long been one of the few European countries to resist the decline of the traditional parties of the centre-left. With Olaf Scholz, Germany’s new Social Democratic chancellor, soon to take office, and the recent victory of the Labour Party in Norway, the pan-European picture has this year become a little rosier for Europe’s centre-left.

Still, elections due in January will give voters a chance to decide whether they still have confidence in Costa’s Socialists. If his government’s impressive vaccine rollout prevents the worst of a fourth wave of Covid crashing over Portugal this winter and is not derailed by the Omicron variant, the Portuguese Socialists may well be rewarded with another term in office, Pizarro said. That would cement its status as one of Europe’s most resilient progressive parties.

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