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UPDATE 2-Italy's health minister hopes first COVID-19 vaccines can start in January

02 Dec 2020 / 19:17 H.

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    By Angelo Amante

    ROME, Dec 2 (Reuters) - Italy will launch a huge, free coronavirus vaccination programme early next year, Health Minister Roberto Speranza said on Wednesday, as the government readies restrictions to avoid a surge in infections during the winter holidays.

    "We finally see land, we have a clear route to a safe harbour... It seems likely that from January we will have the first vaccines," he told the upper house Senate.

    Speranza said the government had options to buy 202 million COVID-19 vaccine shots from various companies and was awaiting clearance for their usage from European drug authorities.

    "The vaccine distribution depends on the contracts signed by the European Commission... subject to authorisation procedures that are not yet absolutely certain," he told parliamentarians.

    On Wednesday, Britain became the first country in the West to approve a COVID-19 vaccine, after its medicine regulator granted emergency use approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine which will be available from next week.

    Italy, the first Western country to be hit by the virus, has registered 56,361 COVID-19 deaths since the outbreak emerged in February, the second highest toll in Europe after Britain. It has also registered 1.62 million cases.

    Speranza said the main part of the Italian vaccine campaign would be carried out between spring and summer 2021, with health workers, elderly people and those living in nursing homes getting the first shots, and the army involved in distribution.

    Italy imposed new restrictions last month to rein in a second wave of infections, putting under partial lockdown much of its industrial north and limiting business activity.

    After daily new cases declined in the past week, the government removed some restrictions on shops and people's movement before Christmas.

    A cabinet meeting scheduled for late Wednesday is expected to approve further curbs to prevent any new surge in infections during the coming holiday season.

    "Our intention is to limit travel abroad and between regions during the winter holidays," Speranza said, adding that movement could be further limited on Christmas, Boxing and New Year's day.

    He reiterated that the government intended to keep ski resorts closed. (Reporting by Angelo Amante; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Timothy Heritage)

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