LONDON (Reuters) – Britain prepares to become the first country to roll out the Pfizer / BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine this week, with the shot initially made available in hospitals before distributing supplies to doctor’s clinics, said the government Sunday.
The first doses will be administered on Tuesday, with the National Health Service (NHS) giving top priority to vaccinating the over-80s, primary care workers and nursing home workers and residents.
Britain last week approved the emergency vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, leading them in the global race to start the most pivotal mass vaccination program in history.
In all, Britain has ordered 40 million doses – enough to vaccinate 20 million people in the country of 67 million.
Approximately 800,000 doses are expected to be available in the first week.
The first doses arriving from Belgium will be stored in secure locations across the country, where they will be quality controlled, according to the Ministry of Health.
The Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine has tough storage requirements. It should be stored at -70C (-94F) and will only last for five days in a regular refrigerator.
For that reason, the Ministry of Health said the vaccine would first be administered in 50 hospitals. It said it would take a few hours to thaw and prepare each vaccine for use.
NHS England has written to GPs telling them to start giving vaccinations through local doctor services from December 14.
Rather than running clinics in individual surgeries, groups of local doctors will operate more than 1,000 vaccination centers 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. A senior medical officer has said that while he hoped it would be possible to split the packages and deliver them directly to care homes, this was not guaranteed.
Britain is one of the first countries to roll out vaccinations outside the context of a clinical trial, raising hopes that the tide could soon turn against a virus that killed nearly 1.5 million people worldwide and hit the global economy.
Russia began distributing its vaccine against Sputnik V COVID-19 through 70 clinics in Moscow on Saturday, although the latest trials have not yet been completed.
Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Helen Popper