Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout to Start Next Week After UK Approval

Peter Russell & Tim Locke

December 02, 2020

Editor's note, 2 December 2020: This article was updated with the latest information and comment.

The UK has become the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for widespread use.

A programme of immunisations using the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine will begin in the next few days after the Government accepted the recommendation from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

Care home residents and their carers will be at the front of the queue to receive the vaccine, followed by people aged over 80, and frontline health and social care workers.

Dr June Raine, MHRA chief executive, said: "We have carried out a rigorous scientific assessment of all the available evidence of quality, safety and effectiveness."

95% Efficacy

The UK has ordered 40 million vaccine doses, for delivery throughout 2020 and 2021, enough to vaccinate 20 million people.

Prof Arne Akbar, president of the British Society for Immunology, told the Science Media Centre it was "a momentous day for us all".

Interim results for the BNT162b2 vaccine demonstrated 95% protection against COVID-19.

Efficacy was more than 94% in protecting people over 65 from COVID-19.

"The vaccine will be made available across the UK from next week," a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care confirmed.

Distribution of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine poses a logistical challenge as it requires storage at around -70C.

In a press release, Pfizer said it was taking "immediate action" to begin delivery of the first doses to the UK.

An initial supply of 800,000 doses is expected from Belgium.

Albert Bourla, Pfizer's chairman and chief executive officer, said it was an "historic moment" in the fight against COVID-19.

Dr Ugur Sahin, CEO and co-founder of BioNTech, added: "We believe that the roll-out of the vaccination program in the UK will reduce the number of people in the high-risk population being hospitalised."

NHS Providers described today's announcement as "great news". Its chief executive Chris Hopson said: "The logistics of administering the Pfizer/BioNTech jab are formidable, but the NHS has been preparing for this, and trusts will play a key role.

"The health service has an excellent track record of delivering vaccination programmes – though this will be on an unprecedented scale, with added challenges because of the need to run mass vaccination centres and the requirement for cold storage."

Vaccine Priority List Announced

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation issued a COVID-19 vaccination priority list based on preventing mortality and maintaining the health and social care system.

  1. Residents in a care home for older adults and their carers

  2. All those 80 years of age and over, and frontline health and social care workers

  3. All those 75 years of age and over

  4. All those 70 years of age and over, and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals

  5. All those 65 years of age and over

  6. All individuals aged 16 years to 64 years with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease and mortality

  7. All those 60 years of age and over

  8. All those 55 years of age and over

  9. All those 50 years of age and over

Liam Smeeth, professor of clinical epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the Science Media Centre that it was "realistic to hope that by March or April the vast majority of older people, care home residents, and those with severe conditions will have been immunised", before a wider immunisation programme in 2021.

"Maintaining public confidence in the vaccine will be key," he added.

In July, Pfizer and BioNTech announced an agreement with the UK Government to supply 30 million doses of its vaccine. That agreement was increased to 40 million doses in early October.

Pfizer said it was confident that its cold-chain shipping infrastructure could ensure vaccine doses were kept at the required temperature for up to 6 months. Once thawed, the vaccine could be stored for up to 5 days at normal refrigeration temperatures.

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