Batches of the newly approved coronavirus vaccine can be split into smaller numbers of doses, the medicines regulator has said, as it emerged Scotland plans to get the jabs into care homes by mid-December.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said on Wednesday that batches could be made smaller in a document outlining conditions of authorisation.
On Wednesday evening at a Downing Street press conference, the chief executive of NHS England Sir Simon Stevens said the vaccine would not reach care homes until approval that it could be safely divided.
When asked for comment, NHS England would not commit to a date to roll the vaccine out in English care homes.
The MHRA document said “further packing down” of batches to aid deployment could occur at 2C to 8C within 120 hours of leaving cold storage.
Advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) says that vaccines should first be offered to elderly people in care homes and care home workers.
On Thursday, Scotland’s Health Secretary Jeane Freeman announced that vaccinations in care homes could begin from Monday December 14.
Ms Freeman said talks over lunchtime had confirmed that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine could be transported in an unfrozen state for up to 12 hours and could also be broken down into smaller packs in “certain conditions”.
A Government spokeswoman said third-party suppliers and a number of health boards have the necessary licences to undertake this, which would allow a care home programme to begin.
She added that its preference is for a more streamlined approach which would involve breaking down the batches at 2-8C in hospital pharmacy departments.
She continued: “Under the streamlined proposal the nurses would carry the vials in validated vaccine porters to the care home where the vaccine will be diluted and drawn up in accordance with locally agreed Health Board standard operating procedures.
“We are continuing to engage with the MHRA to determine if this more streamlined method is possible within existing regulations. ”
It is understood Wales will confirm when it will start rolling out the vaccine to care homes in the next 48 hours.
The National Care Forum said the only viable solution for care home residents was to get the jabs “over the threshold”.
A spokeswoman said: “It seems that the Scottish Government has come to a different conclusion and in fact intends to honour the prioritisation outlined by the JCVI and deliver the vaccine directly to Scottish care homes.
“It is not at all clear at this moment why the English Government is not pursuing this path.”
She called for “urgent guarantees” that the other vaccines be delivered on site into care homes if challenges delivering the Pfizer jab are not overcome.
She added: “It’s all very well to ask care homes to be ‘patient’, but having outlined just how life-changing this could be, the patience of residents, relatives and providers shouldn’t be expected to stretch too far.”
On Wednesday evening Sir Simon insisted the NHS was “raring to go” to vaccinate people in care homes, hopefully this month.
“Just as soon as we have the regulatory sign-off that we can do that, that we can get the jabs to the care homes so that the GPs and the nurses can arrive and give the care home residents that Covid vaccination, we will do that,” he said.”
At the same briefing, the Prime Minister warned of the “immense logistical challenges” in distributing the newly approved coronavirus vaccine, adding: “Of course we want to get it into care homes to protect the most vulnerable as fast as we possibly can.”
On Thursday, Number 10 said the NHS is working closely with the regulator to find a way to administer the vaccine in care homes.