STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Around 600,000 residents of nursing homes for the elderly as well as staff and residents' relatives will be the first in Sweden to be vaccinated against the new coronavirus, the government said on Friday.
Sweden has signed up to receive five of the six vaccines to be purchased through the European Union's common procurement scheme; the first, from Pfizer and BioNTech's, could be approved by the European Medicines Agency in late December.
"First, we need to protect the most vulnerable, then vaccinate the whole population so the pandemic slows and then is stopped," Johan Carlson, head of the Public Health Agency, told a news conference.
Sweden has imposed some of the least stringent social and economic restrictions in Western Europe to tackle the pandemic. Its infection rate and mortality rate are substantially higher than those of its Nordic neighbours, although lower than those of several European countries that opted for lockdowns.
A large percentage of deaths in Sweden have occurred at nursing homes, and authorities have been heavily criticised for failing to protect the most vulnerable.
Carlson expected vaccinations to begin in the first quarter, depending on the speed of vaccine approval and delivery.
Next in line after nursing homes will be healthcare personnel, people over 70 and other high-risk groups.
Sweden's vaccine coordinator said those without symptoms and not in a recognised risk group might not be offered vaccination, which will be free, until after the summer.
The government warned, however, that the start of vaccinations would not mean the end of the pandemic.
"Early in the pandemic I said this is a marathon race," Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said. "We aren't there yet. Hold on a little more, hold out a little longer."
(Reporting by Simon Johnson; Editing by Kevin Liffey)
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