LONDON: Britain is preparing to become the first country to roll out the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine this week, initially making the shot available at hospitals before distributing stocks to doctors' clinics, the government said on Sunday (Dec 6).
The first doses are set to be administered on Tuesday, with the National Health Service (NHS) giving top priority to vaccinating the over-80s, frontline healthcare workers and care home staff and residents.
Britain gave emergency use approval for the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech last week - jumping ahead in the global race to begin the most crucial mass inoculation programme in history.
In total, Britain has ordered 40 million doses - enough to vaccinate 20 million people in the country of 67 million.
About 800,000 doses are expected to be available within the first week.
Initial doses that have arrived from Belgium are being stored in secure locations across the country, where they will be quality checked, the health ministry said.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has onerous storage requirements. It needs to be kept at -70 degrees Celsius and only lasts five days in a regular fridge.
For that reason, the health ministry said the vaccine would first be administered in 50 hospitals. It said it would take a few hours to defrost each vaccine and prepare it for use.
NHS England has written to general practitioners, telling them to get ready to start giving vaccinations through local doctors' services from Dec 14.
Britain reported 17,272 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday, raising the total number of infections since the start of the pandemic to over 1.723 million.
The country also recorded 231 deaths from the disease, down from 397 a day earlier, taking the total toll measured by the number of deaths within 28 days of a positive test to 61,245.
Rather than run clinics in individual surgeries, groups of local doctors will operate more than 1,000 vaccination centres across the country, the government said.
Boxes of the vaccine contain five packs of 975 doses, but special regulatory approval is needed to split them up. A senior medical official has said that while he was hopeful it would be possible to split the packs and deliver straight to care homes, it was not guaranteed.
VACCINE FOR QUEEN
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II will receive the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine within weeks, reports late on Saturday said.
The monarch, 94, and her 99-year-old husband Prince Philip are in line to get the jab early due to their age and will not receive preferential treatment, the Mail on Sunday reported.
The newspaper said Britain's most senior royals would reveal they have been given the inoculation "to encourage more people to take up the vital jab", amid fears so-called anti-vaxxers could dent enthusiasm for it.
Buckingham Palace did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Britain is among the first nations to roll out vaccinations outside the context of a clinic trial, raising hopes that the tide could soon turn against a virus that has killed nearly 1.5 million people globally and hammered the world economy.
Plans are reportedly being stepped up to ensure any complications arising from the end of the Brexit transition period on Dec 31 do not impact its roll-out.
The vaccine will be manufactured at Pfizer's plant in Puurs, Belgium. The Observer reported late on Saturday that ministers have drawn up contingency plans to fly millions of doses into Britain on military aircraft in the event of Brexit-related disruption at UK ports.
"We will do this if necessary," a health department spokesperson told the newspaper.
Talks to finalise a UK-EU free trade deal and avoid potential chaos in January are currently gridlocked, with just days left to seal an agreement.