As U.K. begins vaccinations, a glimpse of life after COVID

By Benjamin Mueller

In March, the emergency room doctor was bedridden with the first case of the coronavirus among his colleagues at a hospital in Wales. Within weeks, he was back in scrubs, tending to a crush of ill, breathless patients.

On Tuesday, after having weathered each turn in Britain’s ravaging bout with the coronavirus, the doctor, Farbod Babolhavaeji, was given one of the world’s first shots of a clinically authorized, fully tested vaccine — a step in the long, painstaking campaign to knock back a disease that has killed more than 1.5 million people worldwide.

Images of the first people to be vaccinated were broadcast around the country, led by Margaret Keenan, 90, a former jewelry shop assistant in a “Merry Christmas” T-shirt, and an 81-year-old man with the improbable name of William Shakespeare. They quickly became emblems of the remarkable race to make a vaccine and the world’s agonizing wait for relief from deaths now numbering 11,000 a day.

Never before has Britain undertaken such a fiendishly difficult mass vaccination program.

Given pizza-boxlike trays of 975 doses each, hospitals stored them in deep freezers, defrosted them and, Tuesday, drew them up into individual syringes and jabbed them into the upper arms of variously jubilant and needle-shy Britons. Every minute mattered: Defrosted doses that were not given by Friday would be wasted.

“We’re doing it with military precision,” said Fiona Kinghorn, the hospital administrator in charge of vaccines in the Welsh capital, Cardiff, where 225 doses, including Babolhavaeji’s, were planned for Tuesday. “And, in fact, we have had the military helping our planning.”

For the first recipients, among them older Britons and hundreds of doctors and nurses who pulled the National Health Service through the pandemic, the shots offered a glimpse at life after COVID-19, replete with plans for rescheduled wedding anniversaries and bus trips to the seaside.

Those hopes were bolstered by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States, which said Tuesday that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the same one being given in Britain, provided strong protection against COVID-19 within about 10 days after the first dose, sooner than had previously been believed.

But any such fantasies were tempered by the bleak winter ahead, with the virus still spreading and claiming, on average, more than 400 lives a day in Britain. The country only has enough doses now for 400,000 people, a tiny sliver of its population of 67 million. It will be months before shots are given to enough Britons, much less to enough people in poorer countries with scarce access to vaccines, that life can start returning to normal.

The United States is also grappling with how to get vaccines to its citizens. President-elect Joe Biden vowed Tuesday to get “at least 100 million COVID vaccine shots into the arms of the American people” in his first 100 days in office. The Trump administration bought that many doses in advance from Pfizer, but with two injections needed for each recipient, that is enough for just 15% of the U.S. population, and the administration passed up an offer last summer to buy more.

In beating the United States and the European Union last week to authorizing the vaccine, Britain kicked off a spirited debate about whether it had moved too hastily or the others were wasting valuable time as the death toll mounted.

The White House, concerned that the move had embarrassed President Donald Trump, heaped additional pressure on U.S. regulators to accelerate vaccine approval, but the FDA stuck to its schedule. It is likely to authorize the shot within days.

The global fight to secure shipments heated up Tuesday, as Trump signed an executive order proclaiming that the U.S. will not begin aiding other nations until all Americans had been inoculated. But the vague directive appeared to have no real teeth and does not expand the U.S. supply of doses.

For Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, who suggested at a London hospital Tuesday that a needle-phobic vaccine recipient “recite some poetry” to calm down, the start of mass vaccinations was a coup amid a pandemic that has battered Britain and deflated his first year in office. For the time being, the shot is only being administered by 50 hospitals, owing to its ultracold storage needs.

Some health workers who had spent months treating COVID patients cried upon getting the shot. By and large, people said they felt no more pain than they had from any other injection, though they were asked to sit for 15 minutes to make sure nothing went wrong.

“It’s nice to have had it done, and I feel rather smug,” said Martin Kenyon, 91, of London, who described the injection itself as “quite boring.” Brandishing a wallet-sized card with a date for his second dose, Dec. 29, Kenyon said that he was excited to break the news of his vaccination to his family and to possibly see his grandchildren, aged 10, 8 and 7, for the holidays.

With Britain hoping to vaccinate tens of millions of people within months, hospital administrators spoke of using the first day of inoculations to resolve “teething problems.”

Some hospitals prioritized nurses, doctors and nursing home workers, while others gave the first shots to people aged 80 and over who already had visits with doctors or were being discharged. Nursing home residents, originally the top priority under a government advisory committee’s plans, will be vaccinated before Christmas, health officials said Tuesday, once the government refines a plan for breaking down the trays of vaccines outside hospitals.

Unlike flu vaccines in Britain, which come in prefilled syringes, the coronavirus vaccines arrived in vials of five doses each. That forced hospital pharmacists to rely on a delicate process for drawing out doses without contaminating the vial.

Britain preordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine. But health officials expect only 4 million to arrive by the end of the year, less than half of what they had anticipated as recently as last month. Manufacturing difficulties have halved Pfizer’s expected global supply for this month.

In an effort to hedge its bets, Britain prepurchased hundreds of millions of doses of several different vaccine candidates in development. The country is expected to authorize the emergency use of one developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford. That drug’s more forgiving storage requirements make it easier to dispense at mass vaccination centers being assembled at racecourses and soccer stadiums. Doctors could begin administering vaccines in their offices as early as next week.

Some Britons who were eligible for the Pfizer shot said Tuesday that they did not want it, an early sign of the hesitancy over vaccines that could complicate efforts to achieve widespread protection.

“It’s a bit too early,” said Carlos Pinto, 80, who was getting a blood test at a London hospital that had the vaccines. “I prefer to wait a bit longer.”

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