The first doses of the approved coronavirus vaccine are due to arrive in the UK on Thursday as the country battles with logistical challenges in administering it to those at the top of the priority list.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, confirmed the jab from Pfizer and BioNTech – approved by the UK medicines regulator on Wednesday – will hit British shores in “hours, not days”.
The UK became the first country in the world to give the go-ahead to the vaccine, paving the way for vaccinations to start next week.
The country has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer jab, enough to vaccinate 20 million people with two doses, given 21 days apart.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said 800,000 doses of the jab will arrive next week, while BioNTech chief commercial officer Sean Marett confirmed the UK is likely to receive at least five million doses by the end of the year – half of its initial 2020 order due to a production scaleback.
Issues surrounding storage temperature and how many times it can be transported have prompted the Prime Minister to warn of “immense logistical challenges” in the Pfizer rollout, with experts warning that people in care homes might face a delay in receiving immunisation from the disease.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises ministers, has recommended care home residents and staff should be the top priority.
Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, told a Downing Street press briefing that the jab must be stored at such low temperatures – minus 70C – that it could only be moved a few times and could only be shifted in large quantities, making it difficult to administer in care homes.
There is not yet approval from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to split the vaccine boxes containing 975 doses, meaning it would be wasted if sent to individual residential homes, according to NHS officials.
Liam Smeeth, a non-executive director of the MHRA, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that splitting the boxes was “being considered” by the regulator but “whatever they do, they will stick to keeping it safe and effective”.
Wales’s chief medical officer Dr Frank Atherton confirmed the prioritisation list would have to be tempered as the devolved government would need to use mass vaccination centres which involved “people moving towards the vaccine”.
Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the JCVI, said the vaccine priority list was designed to be flexible.
“Our clear remit was to decide on prioritisation groups but that there were going to be vaccine product storage, transport and administration constraints, and individual local circumstances,” he told the Today programme.
“We have advised in our statement that there is flexibility at an approach to this list according to what was actually feasible and logistical on the ground, so this is not wholly unexpected, but the clear list that we have drawn out is a list of priority in terms of vulnerability.”
Prof Harnden called for a “very small degree of patience”, with other vaccines – which could have fewer issues with transport and storage – “in the pipeline”.
It is hoped that the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, if approved by the regulator, will allow for easier administration on a mass scale as it can be stored at normal fridge-like temperatures.
Professor Ugur Sahin, co-founder of BioNTech, agreed that the rollout of the vaccine was a “challenge”.
Pfizer and BioNTech have said the jab can be sent to care homes as long as it travels for no more than six hours after it leaves cold storage and is then put in a normal fridge at 2C to 8C.
Prof Sahin told Good Morning Britain: “I am sure that the experts who are closely collaborating with each other will identify the easiest path to make this vaccine accessible to everyone who needs it.”
Despite the hurdles, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said Covid-19 will be defeated by the spring.
Asked if he was confident the whole nation will have had two vaccinations by the spring, he told Sky News: “It’s over the coming months we’re going to see the rollout. Further plans will be outlined.”
Information obtained by the PA news agency says that once the vaccine arrives in the UK from Pfizer’s plant in Belgium, batches will be checked at a central depot to ensure their quality.
Public Health England will process orders placed by the NHS for next-day delivery to hospital hubs around the UK.
Meanwhile, a further 648 people had died in the UK within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Wednesday, while there were a further 16,170 lab-confirmed cases.