Less than a year after the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, a massive mobilization to deliver a vaccine is underway, and Britain has become a testing ground.
After clearing the shot from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, the UK is set to become the first Western country to vaccinate its citizens, a turning point in the battle to stop a pathogen that has killed more than 1.5 million people. The British are expected to start rolling their sleeves up on Tuesday, with around 50 hospitals initially participating in the campaign.
As the focus shifts from research and development to distribution, the country of 67 million people finds itself in the spotlight. The Pfizer vaccine rollout – along with potential vaccines from Moderna Inc., AstraZeneca Plc and others waiting behind the scenes – will have to overcome a series of production and logistical hurdles. Healthcare systems also need to convince some medical workers and members of the public that it’s safe to take the hit.
“We have demonstrated the power of science, ingenuity and ambition,” said Rajeev Venkayya, president of the vaccines business of Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. “If we can do this as a global community, I think we can definitely figure out how to distribute. This does not mean that we are not going to run into problems. Of course we will. We have never done this before.
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Britain, like some other Western governments, has been criticized for its approach to testing, contact tracing and other parts of its response: pressure is on to avoid such snags with inoculations. As a potentially bleak winter approaches, hospitals across the country are already under pressure.
The country is expected to brace itself for “difficult months,” the UK’s chief medical officers wrote in a December 4 letter, warning that socializing around Christmas could put additional stress on hospitals in the New Year. Vaccinations can help drastically reduce Covid hospital admissions and deaths by spring, they wrote, “but there are still many weeks to go until we get to this point.”
Delivering a vaccine quickly to tens of millions of people is a tall order, and Pfizer’s product adds to thecomplexities. The shot should be transported at around minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit), colder than winter in Antarctica. After arrival, it can be stored in freezers, in a hospital refrigerator for five days, or up to 15 days in special Pfizer thermal chargers filled with dry ice.
Boxes of Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, produced in Puurs, Belgium, were shipped to secure sites in the UK by truck or air, each containing five packages of 975 doses. Upon arrival, the vaccine goes through a quality assurance process that takes 12 to 24 hours.
People over 80, staff in care facilities and health workers most at risk of disease will be the first to be beaten, according to a statement from England’s National Health Service. Ultimately, no less than 1,000 vaccination centers, managed by groups of general practitioners, will be put online, the government said.
Great Britain regulator decision Wednesday, the release of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine before the US Food and Drug Administration and its European counterpart paved the way for the start of vaccinations. The government had been signaling this possibility for months, positioning the regulator to allow an independent shot before the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.
While speeding up the delivery of a vaccine, the nation also has to deal with concerns that it is moving too quickly. Anthony Fauci, the US government’s top infectious disease specialist, criticized the UK drugs regulator on Thursday, saying he rushed to clear the Pfizer vaccine, albeit later. attenuated comments. The politicians’ chant that the UK is the first has also drawn fire, although the US may also allow the vaccine this week.
Now the focus is on mass vaccination. The country has obtained 40 million doses of the Pfizer injection – enough to immunize 20 million people – and Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said the country expects an initial 800,000 doses to arrive this week.
How the health system will receive vaccines against residents and elderly nursing home staff was unclear last week. It is important that they are brought to the facilities where they live and work, depending onLiz jones, policy director at the National Care Forum, which represents providers.
“We shouldn’t take the default position that says, ‘You have to get people to the vaccine,’” she said. “We want to see a rapid exploration of how we can bring the vaccine to the population.”
As governments deliver vaccines, they will need to implement surveillance systems to check for potential side effects, according to Takeda’s Venkayya, who is also former US President George W. Bush’s special assistant on biodefense. The supply and demand equation also poses a dilemma.
“There will be challenges with the allocation of a scarce resource in the early days,” Venkayya said.
With the distribution of a Covid vaccine, the stakes are high as governments, including the UK, desperately seek ways to reopen economies, lift restrictions and save lives.
The UK will likely have enough vaccines for two-thirds of its population by July 2021, reaching that level three months after the US but around two months before the European Union, according to aanalysisby London-based research firm Airfinity Ltd. The estimates are largely based on the supplies that governments have guaranteed per capita and the productive capacity in each region.
“Where we will determine here not only how quickly we can take control of the situation and return to a certain degree of global stability,” saidDaniel Bausch, an infectious disease specialist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, “but ultimately whether the Covid-19 vaccination effort will go down in history as the biggest public health success or failure.”
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