UK To Get COVID Vaccine: Will We Get Our Old Lives Back? Not Yet
UK may be excited about being No 1 in vaccination race, but remember, this is a global pandemic, not a national one.
“Scientists have done it,” said a jubilant Prime Minister Boris Johnson, after the UK became the first country to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The first consignment arrived on Thursday, 3 December, in industrially frozen shipments on the back of unmarked lorries which rolled off Eurotunnel freight carriages in convoy. A confident government said it will have 800,000 vaccine doses by this week, with immunisations starting on Tuesday, 8 December.
UK has ordered 40 million doses of the vaccine and this two-dose vaccine is expected to vaccinate 20 million people.
Undoubtedly, it has brought great excitement and cheer. So, will the pandemic disappear? Not so soon.
UK’s Vaccine Deployment Strategy
First, rolling out the vaccine is a massive challenge. The government has set up three modes of delivery.
Fifty hospitals across the country have been readied to begin the vaccine administration. In addition, the National Health Service (NHS), England has told GP surgeons they must be ready to administer 975 doses to priority patients within three-and-a-half days of the vaccines being delivered on 14 December.
The Army and NHS have begun urgent preparations for massive vaccine centres across the country. Military personnel have been ordered to transform about 10 sites into vaccine hubs.
But as the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Van-Tam warned, “This is a complex product. It is not a yoghurt that can be taken out of the fridge and put back in several times.”
Also, the two-dose vaccine needs to be administered twice in 21 days, and authorities will need to ensure that each of those vaccinated return for the second dose.
Advantage Of ‘mRNA’ Vaccines
As of now, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has beaten its rivals, but Moderna (UK has secured 5 million doses) and Oxford/AstraZeneca (UK has ordered 100 million doses) vaccines are in hot pursuit. While Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA, AstraZeneca vaccine is a genetically altered adenovirus and is currently the cheapest to produce and can be stored in 2-8 degrees Celsius in fridges.
The advantage of mRNA vaccines is that they can be quicker to produce, more effective than typical vaccines, and can be reformulated if the virus mutates.
Moderna claims its vaccine can remain stable at 2-8 degrees Celsius for 30 days. The Pfizer vaccine, however, needs to be kept at -70 degrees Celsius, and will degrade in around five days at normal refrigeration temperatures.
Vaccine Drive: ‘Immense Logistical Challenges’
So, is the end of the tunnel near? No, not quite yet. The light at the end of the tunnel may be visible, but the journey towards it is laden with difficulties. Johnson is aware of the “immense logistical challenges” in distributing the Pfizer vaccine and has warned that “we are not carried away with over-optimism or fall into the naïve belief that the struggle is over.” Only time will tell which vaccine does the best job.
There has been criticism of UK’s ‘rushed’ approval of the vaccine, but that has more to do with politics than actual procedure.
The Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority (MHRA) is globally recognised for requiring the highest standards of safety, quality and effectiveness for any vaccine. It has responsibility in law to continuously evaluate all products on the UK market. Following COVID-19 vaccine approval, the MHRA has in place a robust and proactive safety monitoring strategy which allows for near real-time safety monitoring at population level.
COVID Vaccination: Challenges Ahead
There may be a sense of excitement that we will get back our pre-COVID-19 lives, but scientists have warned that we are still far from being sure of that. Despite being the first country to approve the vaccines, UK citizens have a long wait and need to continue with the COVID-19 rules. Scientists say that it is still not known how far the current COVID-19 vaccine contenders are able to prevent transmission or offer sterilising immunity, which is necessary to reach herd protection levels.
Even if it is assumed that the vaccine helps prevent transmission, the number of people who would be required to be vaccinated in order to fully protect the vulnerable is very high.
Also, it is not yet clear if, and which vaccine will be annual, quarterly or biannual.
Physical Distancing Won’t End Anytime Soon
Prof David Salisbury, a former director of immunisation at the UK Department of Health and associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank has been quoted in the BBC, saying:
“If you just protect the vulnerable, you will stop deaths that are happening in the vulnerable and you will reduce the burden of hospital cases, but it won’t stop transmission.”
So, clearly, don’t expect to see an end to physical distancing in the near future.
There may be a race to get the vaccine first and the UK is feeling chuffed about being ahead in the race, but it cannot be forgotten that this is a global pandemic, not a national one, and the world is closely connected through movement of people and trade, and as Prof Salisbury puts it, “You've got to stop the virus everywhere and, until you do, nowhere remains safe.”
(Nabanita Sircar is a senior journalist based in London. She tweets at @sircarnabanita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)
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