British Health Secretary Matt Hancock says hospitals are ready to receive the new coronavirus vaccine and other modes of distribution are being set up. Britain approved the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech for emergency use on Wednesday. (Dec. 2)
LONDON – A year after a mysterious new respiratory disease emerged in Wuhan, China, upending patterns of life and work, the United Kingdom on Tuesday became the first western country to start vaccinating its population against a virus that has killed more than 1.5 million people worldwide and sickened tens of millions more.
Around 50 hospitals in the U.K.’s state-run National Health Service (NHS) started administering the inoculation to people over 80 who are either hospitalized or have outpatient appointments scheduled, along with nursing home workers.
Others will have to wait their turn.
The first recipient of the shot was grandmother Margaret Keenan, who turns 91 next week. She received the shot at University Hospital Coventry at 6:31 a.m. local time.
“It’s the best early birthday present I could wish for because it means I can finally look forward to spending time with my family and friends in the New Year after being on my own for most of the year,” Keenan said.
She said felt extremely “privileged to be the first person vaccinated against COVID-19.”
Other details of the rollout for Pfizer/BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine were still emerging.
The first doses of the highly anticipated coronavirus shots reached the U.K. on Thursday night after traveling through the Eurotunnel that connects the U.K. to continental Europe from Belgium, where the vaccination was manufactured. The first shipments of the vaccine were delivered to a selected group of U.K. hospitals on Sunday.
Face masks to curb the spread of coronavirus are displayed for sale as non-essential shops are allowed to reopen after England’s second lockdown ended at midnight, on Oxford Street, in London, Dec. 2, 2020. (Photo: Matt Dunham, AP)
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The U.K. has ordered 40 million doses, or enough for 20 million people – about a third of the population – because two doses, three-to-four weeks apart, are required. Due to intense global demand, the U.K. has been given 800,000 doses to begin with.
Rolling out the vaccine come with logistical complications connected to the way the vaccine needs to be stored: ultra-cold, at minus 70 Celsius (minus 94 Fahrenheit). It’s mostly hospitals that have the facilities to store the vaccine at that temperature.
The bulk of the U.K.’s vaccination program is expected to take place next year.
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The U.K. approved the vaccine for general use faster than any other country, a move that has drawn some skepticism from public health officials, including the top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci. In an interview with the BBC, Fauci apologized after he earlier appeared to suggest during a segment on Fox News that the U.K. “rushed” the vaccine and regulators did not review it “as carefully” as in the U.S.
“Our process is one that takes more time than in the U.K. And that’s just the reality,” Fauci told the BBC. “I did not mean to imply any sloppiness even though it came out that way,” the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said.
Margaret Keenan, 90, becomes the first patient in the world to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. The shot was administered by nurse May Parsons, right, at University Hospital, Coventry, England, on Dec. 8, 2020. (Photo: Jacob King, AP)
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the U.K.’s federal regulator, said it approved the vaccine after it “rigorously assessed the data in the shortest time possible, without compromising the thoroughness of our review.”
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Still, the U.S. is hard on the heels of the U.K. in terms of its rollout of Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine, as well as one manufactured by Moderna. Both vaccines have been found by researchers to be up to 95% effective with no serious side effects.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could authorize Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine as soon as Dec. 10, when it is due to meet to discuss its emergency use authorization.
Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said on Tuesday the reason why the U.K. was able to approve Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine so quickly is because its regulators rely much more heavily on vaccine data provided by the drug companies. The same applies to European Union regulators. Hahn said the FDA “is one of the few regulatory agencies in the world that actually looks at the raw data.”
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a virtual press conference inside 10 Downing Street in central London on Dec. 2, 2020. (Photo: Getty Images)
China and Russia have already begun a mass rollout of their own coronavirus vaccines, which they claim have shown similar levels of efficacy and safety as the western ones. But they have done so before completing late-stage clinical trials.
The U.K. last week became the first country in Europe to pass 60,000 deaths from COVID-19. The U.S. is swiftly approaching 300,000 deaths.
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