PARIS - France will ensure free COVID-19 vaccinations for all in its social security system and has earmarked some 1.5 billion euros ($1.82 billion) of next year's social security budget to cover the cost, Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Thursday. Castex, who unveiled France's vaccination strategy alongside several ministers of his government, confirmed the vaccination would not be made compulsory but urged as many as possible to get a shot. COVID-19, caused by the new coronavirus, has killed more than 1.4 million globally, more than 54,000 of them in France, and derailed the world economy. "The remarkable mobilisation worldwide has allowed the rapid development of vaccines. However, this timeframe in no way means that we have compromised safety," the prime minister said in a briefing, adding a vaccine distributed in France would be safe. "Getting a vaccine is also about protecting others. It is a choice of trust, we must be as numerous as possible to get a vaccine." On Wednesday, Britain became the first Western country to approve a COVID-19 vaccine, clearing a shot from U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech and targeting about 800,000 initial doses in early December to vulnerable members of its population. The European Union is sticking to a more-formal conditional marketing authorisation (CMA) process that it said ensures a "full evaluation" of candidates. It could still see deliveries in coming weeks after setting a Dec. 29 deadline to decide on the Pfizer/BioNTech candidate and Jan. 12 for a vaccine developed by Moderna . THREE STAGES Castex confirmed a vaccination campaign would begin within weeks, pending regulatory approval by the European Medicines Agency. The inoculation programme would be staggered over three categories of people and spread throughout 2021, he said. A first phase to run through February would see vaccines administered to nursing home residents and the staff looking after them, representing about 1 million. A second phase would see some 14 million receive the shot based on age and medical criteria, and a third, beginning in March, would target the rest of the population. "The vaccination will be free for all," Castex said. He confirmed citizens, through a dedicated committee, scientists and associations would be associated to ensure information about vaccines is widely circulated and understood. According to an Ipsos poll for the World Economic Forum, only 59% of French respondents said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if it became available, compared with 67% in the United States and 85% in Britain. France, through the European Union, has secured some 200 million doses from different pharmaceutical companies developing vaccines, Castex said, enough to inoculate 100 million people - more than the country's population. Castex said the spread of the virus was continuing to slow in France and would soon go below the threshold of 10,000 new infections per day. Health authorities reported 12,696 new infections on Thursday, versus 14,064 on Wednesday and an all-time high of 86,852 reached on Nov 7. The seven-day moving average of new daily cases now stands at 10,524, a more than ten-week low. Several months would be needed to know if a vaccine was successful in halting transmission, Castex said, adding authorities would offer health monitoring to subjects post vaccination. ($1 = 0.8234 euros) REUTERS
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