Shipments of the coronavirus vaccine developed by US drugmaker Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech were delivered on Sunday in the UK in super-cold containers, two days before it was announced in a closely monitored immunization program around the world.
About 800,000 doses of the vaccine were expected to be in place ahead of the vaccination program on Tuesday, a day that Health Secretary Matt Hancock reportedly called “V-Day,” a nod to World War II triumphs.
“Knowing that they are here, and that we are among the first in the country to actually receive the vaccine and therefore the first in the world, is just amazing,” said Louise Coughlan, Joint Chief Pharmacist at the Croydon Health Services NHS Trust, just south of London.
“I’m so proud,” she said after the trust, which runs Croydon University Hospital, received the vaccine.
Last week, the UK became the first country to approve the Pfizer BioNtech vaccine for emergency use. In studies, the vaccine was shown to be approximately 95% effective.
Vaccinations will be administered as of Tuesday at about 50 hospital hubs in England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will also start their vaccinations on the same day.
Governments and healthcare organizations around the world will be monitoring the UK vaccination program, which will take months, to note its successes and failures and adapt their own plans accordingly.
The United States hopes to launch vaccinations later this month. British regulators are also examining data on the vaccines from the American biotechnology company Moderna and AstraZeneca-Oxford University.
Russia on Saturday began vaccinating thousands of doctors, teachers and others at dozens of centers in Moscow with its Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine, which was approved over the summer after being tested on just a few dozen people.
Tensions in Britain, which has Europe’s highest virus-related death toll of more than 61,000, were palpable.
“Despite the enormous complexity, hospitals will launch the first phase of the largest vaccination campaign in our country’s history from Tuesday,” said Professor Stephen Powis, NHS England’s National Medical Director.
Patients aged 80 and older who already go to hospital as outpatient staff and those who are discharged after a stay in the hospital will be among the first to receive a jab. Hospitals will also begin inviting over the 80s for a vaccine shot and will work with nursing homes to book staff for vaccination clinics.
All meetings that are not taken up will be offered to the healthcare professionals who are considered to have the highest risk of Covid-19. Everyone who is vaccinated will need a booster stop 21 days later.
Buckingham Palace declined to comment on speculation that Queen Elizabeth II, 94, and her 99-year-old husband, Prince Philip, will soon be vaccinated and then make it public, a move that could reassure anyone nervous about getting vaccinated.
“Our goal is entirely to protect all members of the population, Her Majesty, of course, too,” said Dr. June Raine, CEO of Britain’s pharmaceuticals and healthcare products, who approved the vaccine, told the BBC.
The UK has secured 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which could cover 20 million people. As the UK government will only vaccinate people over the age of 16, around 55 million people in the UK will be eligible. In total, the UK has obtained 357 million doses from seven vaccine candidates, including 100 million of the much cheaper Oxford vaccine, which has a lower efficacy rate than the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.
Now that the first part of the vaccine has arrived from Pfizer’s manufacturing facility in Belgium, checks are carried out by a specialist pharmaceutical logistics company to ensure that there was no damage during transport. This can take up to a day.
Each box containing the vaccines, which contains five packs of 975 doses, must be opened and unpacked manually at specially licensed locations. The vaccines will then be made available to hospitals.
Delivering the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is complicated because it must be stored at super-cold temperatures: about minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit). Fortunately, the vaccine is stable at normal cooling temperatures, between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius (35.6 to 46.4 F), for a few days, which means it can be stored locally. After defrosting the vaccine, which takes a few hours, additional time is required to prepare what is to be given in one shot.
Public Health England has secured 58 special Twin Guard freezers with extremely low temperatures that provide adequate storage for approximately five million doses. The non-portable refrigerators each hold approximately 86,000 doses.
The vaccine is not only provided by hospitals. Local clinics and other local health centers are being prepared to start delivering the vaccine, and a small number are expected to do so in the week of 14 December. More medical practice in more parts of the country will be phased in during December and the coming months.
There are plans for vaccination centers to treat a large number of patients in sports areas and conference centers and for local pharmacies to be able to offer jabs as they do with annual flu shots.
Although nursing homes are at the top of the priority list given by the UK Government by the Independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, they will not receive the vaccinations directly, as the 975 dose vaccine packages cannot yet be shared, making it very difficult to deliver vaccines to individual nursing homes.
The NHS hopes that authorities will soon approve a safe way to divide the dose packages so that the shots can reach nursing homes in December.
During the first phase of the immunization program, the UK has created nine separate groups in its priority list down to those aged 50 and over. Overall, it is hoped that up to 99% of the people most at risk of dying from Covid-19 will have been vaccinated during the first phase.