A 90-year-old grandmother has become the first person to receive a COVID-19 vaccine as part of a mass immunisation scheme in the UK, kicking off a global programme that is expected to gain momentum.
On what has been dubbed “V-Day” in the UK, Margaret Keenan, who turns 91 next week, was given the jab at University Hospital Coventry at 6:31 a.m. (UK time, 07.31 CET).
Staff applauded her after she had received the first dose. Keenan said she felt “so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against Covid-19.”
“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,” she said.
The initial phase of the programme is being rolled out at a network of hospital hubs around the country. The first 800,000 doses are going to people over 80 who are either in hospital or already have outpatient appointments scheduled, along with nursing home workers.
Public health officials are asking the public to be patient because only those who are most at risk from COVID-19 will be vaccinated in the early stages. Medical staff will contact patients to arrange appointments, and most will have to wait until next year.
“I think there’s every chance that we will look back on … (Tuesday) as marking a decisive turning point in the battle against coronavirus,” said Simon Stevens, the CEO of England’s National Health Service.
For Professor Peter Openshaw, a world-renowned immunology expert from Imperial College London, it’s a momentous morning.
“I think it’s absolutely fantastic that we’ve got from the first discovery of the virus to the first injections of a licensed vaccine within less than a year,” he told Euronews. “I think it’s an amazing tribute to the speed with which science can work, and also the speed with which regulators and politicians, the funders, everyone can work together in order to arrive at this point.”
But the logistical hurdles are huge. The Pfi vaccine has to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius and easily be separated into small batches.
In care homes there are questions over how to store the vaccine, which can only be moved four times and lasts just five days at fridge temperature.
“We don’t know yet what it looks like in terms of distribution, and next stages, but our hopes are that we can organise ourselves really quickly, get mobilised, and get our residents vaccinated as soon as possible,” said Anna Selby, Head of the COVID-19 task force at Sunrise Senior Living UK.
The UK is getting a head start on the project after British regulators gave emergency authorisation on December 2 to the vaccine produced by US drugmaker Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech. The first shipments were delivered to a selected group of UK hospitals on Sunday.
The vaccine can’t arrive soon enough for the UK, which has more than 61,000 COVID-19 related deaths — more than any other country has reported in Europe — and more than 1.7 million cases.
In England, the vaccine will be delivered at 50 hospital hubs in the first wave of the programme, with more hospitals expected to offer it as the rollout ramps up. Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are making their own plans under the UK’s system of devolved administration.
The 800,000 doses are only a fraction of what is needed. The government is targeting more than 25 million people, or about 40% of the population, in the first phase of its vaccination programme, which gives first priority to those who are highest risk from the disease.
After those over 80 and nursing home workers, the programme will be expanded as the supply increases, with the vaccine offered roughly on the basis of age groups, starting with the oldest people.
The immunisation programme will be a “marathon not a sprint,” said professor Stephen Powis, medical director for NHS England.
Authorities also are focusing on large-scale distribution points because each package of vaccine contains 975 doses and they don’t want any to be wasted.
There are complaints of a lack of information. One general practitioner, Dr Louise Irvine, told Euronews recently that she had not been briefed on the role that she was expected to play.
“As GPs, family doctors, we are supposed to be providing vaccines as well, eventually, from community-based hubs, and we’re told this is supposed to be starting in the next week or two. And yet the amount of information we’ve had is very, very, very little,” she said.
“They’re kind of rushing to catch up with things, and I just wonder whether it was premature. This announcement about rolling it out before they had the infrastructure, the logistics and plans in place.”
The UK health minister and some other politicians from the ruling Conservative Party have wrongly claimed that Brexit enabled the country to roll out the vaccine early. In fact, until the transition period expires at the end of the year, the UK remains under EU rules — which authorise nations to take such action. Other EU countries, however, have chosen to await the approval of the EU regulator.
Public health officials elsewhere are watching Britain’s rollout as they prepare for the unprecedented task of vaccinating billions of people to end a pandemic that has killed more than 1.5 million.
US and European Union authorities are also reviewing the vaccine, alongside rival products developed by US biotechnology company Moderna, and a collaboration between Oxford University and drugmaker AstraZeneca.
On Saturday, Russia began vaccinating thousands of doctors, teachers and others at dozens of centers in Moscow with its Sputnik V vaccine. That program is being viewed differently because Russia authorised use of Sputnik V last summer after it was tested in only a few dozen people.
Among those older Britons scheduled to get vaccinated is Hari Shukla of Newcastle.
“When I received the telephone call, I was very excited I got the opportunity of joining in and taking part in that,″ he said. “So we are very very pleased and happy and excited as well.″
Buckingham Palace refused to comment on reports that Queen Elizabeth II, 94, and her 99-year-old husband, Prince Philip, would be vaccinated as a public example of its safety.
The UK has agreed to buy millions of doses from seven different producers. Governments around the world are making agreements with multiple developers to ensure they lock in delivery of the products that are ultimately approved for widespread use.