A week after the U.K. became the first Western country to authorize widespread use of a vaccine against COVID-19, it is preparing to administer its first shots on Tuesday in its war on the virus.
Those 800,000 doses will first go to people over 80 who are either hospitalized or already have outpatient appointments scheduled, along with nursing home workers.
Most people will have to wait until next year before there is enough vaccine on hand to expand the program.
“I don’t think people should expect anything over the next few days because the reality is … that for the vast, vast, vast majority of people this will be done in January, February, March,” said Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers. “And the one thing that we don’t want people to get anxious about or concerned about is ‘Where’s my letter?’ in December.”
Public health officials around the globe are watching Britain’s rollout as they prepare for the unprecedented task of rapidly vaccinating billions of people to end the pandemic that has killed more than 1.5 million worldwide. While the U.K. has a well-developed infrastructure for delivering vaccines, it is geared to vaccinating groups such as school children or pregnant women, not the entire population.
The U.K. is getting a head start on the project after British regulators on Dec. 2 gave emergency authorization to the vaccine produced by U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech. U.S. and European Union authorities are also reviewing the vaccine, alongside rival products developed by U.S. 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 authorized use of Sputnik V last summer after it was tested in only a few dozen people.
But the vaccine can’t arrive soon enough for the U.K., which has more than 61,000 COVID-19 related deaths — more than any other country has reported in Europe. The U.K. has more than 1.7 million cases.
The first shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were delivered to a selected group of U.K. hospitals on Sunday.
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 program, which gives first priority to those who are at the highest risk from the disease.
After those over 80 and nursing home workers, the program will be expanded as the supply increases, with the vaccine offered roughly on the basis of age groups, starting with the oldest people.
In England, the vaccine will be delivered at 50 hospital hubs in the first wave of the program, with more hospitals expected to offer it as the rollout ramps up. Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are making their own plans under the U.K.’s system of devolved administration.
Logistical issues are slowing the rapid rollout of the Pfizer vaccine because this effort will be a cold war: The vaccine has to be stored at minus-70 degrees Celsius (minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit).
The immunization program 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.
The U.K. has agreed to purchase 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.