What Can We Learn from the U.K. as It Distributes the Pfizer Vaccine?

Today is being hailed as a historic day as the United Kingdom gets ready to distribute the world’s first doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine. The first dose was administered just before 7 AM local time at a hospital in the city of Coventry.

The first person to get vaccinated was Margret Keenan, who’s about to turn 91 next week. The nurse administered the shot with a simple, “All done,” and the entire room broke out in applause.

After getting the drug, Keenan told reporters, “I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against COVID-19. It’s the best early birthday present I could wish for because it means I can finally look forward to spending time with my family and friends in the New Year after being on my own for most of the year.”

The country now faces the daunting task of distributing millions of doses of the drug over the next several weeks. Just last week, the U.K. became the first country to approve the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech after the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) approved a temporary authorization for emergency use. Health officials say 800,000 doses will go out this week alone.

Here in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration is on track to approve the same drug. The Vaccines Advisory Committee will meet on December 10th to determine whether the drug should be granted a similar emergency use authorization (EUA).

So, what can we learn from our ally across the pond as they become the first country to distribute the drug to the general population?

Who Gets It First?

The U.K. has decided that older, at-risk individuals just like Margret Keenan will get the first doses of the drug. It will be reserved for patients either in the hospital or those coming in for outpatient treatment. The drug will then be administered to healthcare providers and other essential workers.

The CDC in the U.S. recently came to the same conclusions, saying that, if and when approved, the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine will go towards front line workers and nursing home residents.

England is breathing a collective sigh of relief after experiencing some of the deadliest months of the pandemic on record. The country still has the highest death count in all of Europe, with over 1.75 million cases and over 62,000 deaths.

The country has also been on lockdown for the last several weeks as government leaders try to limit the spread even as the first doses of the vaccine start going out to patients. The number of new cases has been going down lately, but health officials are worried about large crowds over the holidays. With the vaccine in place, they are hoping to turn the corner on the virus as soon as early spring.

The Need for Cold Storage

One of the main challenges of distributing the Pfizer vaccine is that the drug has to be stored at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. Providers must have access to reliable cold storage materials to administer the drug. That’s why most of the action is currently happening at hospitals and doctors’ offices.

Large hospitals and clinics are uniquely suited to distribute the vaccine. Keeping the drug in the hospital means they can easily keep the vaccine in an ultra-low temperature freezer as they administer it to patients.

Taking the vaccine to nursing homes and administering it in and around the local community will prove challenging in some areas. The country will have to keep the drug frozen until it reaches its destination.

What About People Power?

With thousands of nursing jobs unfilled, the U.K. is still struggling with a nursing shortage, much like the U.S. The country says it’s planning to recruit retired healthcare workers as well as thousands of first-aide workers to help administer the drug to patients.

“I think all people who can help should put their hands up,” said Sarah Wollaston, who worked as a doctor before serving in Parliament. She recently took an online refresher course, so she can volunteer to help administer the vaccine. “Physically, giving someone a vaccine is very straightforward,” she added. “The challenge is the logistics.”

The country is putting together dozens of temporary clinics to create more space at healthcare facilities in case of long lines.

Transporting and storing the drug also comes with plenty of security risks. The drug is currently considered one of the most valuable items on the planet, so the country has to protect it from criminals and possible security threats.

“It is the most valuable asset on Earth right now,” said Lisa Forte, a former British counterintelligence employee who’s worked in cybersecurity. “Naturally, this will attract highly skilled cybercriminals, criminal groups and state actors.”

Cybersecurity professionals say they have already thwarted attempts to undermine the vaccine’s security with criminals looking into every stage of the supply chain, including petrochemical companies that are making dry ice for storing the vaccine at sub-zero temperatures.

The drug also requires a second injection just a few weeks after the first, so every patient will need to come through at least twice.

Despite these challenges, health experts believe the U.K. is uniquely suited to roll out the vaccine. The National Health Service (NHS) should help streamline the operations.

As Martin Marshall, chair of the council of the Royal College of General Practitioners, puts it, “I think we can make this work if we work across the NHS and show some flexibility. It plays to the strength of the NHS, which is a centralized, organized and managed system — and it plays to our values as well.”

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