Boris Johnson says he is certain of life “returning to normal in 2021” as Britain is poised to start the biggest vaccine campaign in its history, but warned it’s “not game over” yet.
In what could be the beginning of the end of the pandemic, the British Prime Minister on Thursday (Australian time) outlined the country’s plan to begin immunising the elderly, health workers and social workers from next week.
However, while the Pfizer vaccine was “medically safe” it was “logistically complicated”, NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens said.
Mr Stevens said the vaccine would have to be moved around the country at -70 degrees.
The medication also comes in bulk packs of 975 doses, which means vaccinations cannot yet be distributed to small GPs and pharmacies. Vaccination will begin at 50 hospital hubs across England.
After that, GP practices will pool together to operate 1000 vaccination centres across the country.
Mr Stevens said two doses would be required, the first in December and second in January. The bulk of the jabs will happen from January through to March or April.
The people who will be among the first to receive the vaccine will be contacted and offered it by the NHS.
Mr Johnson said it was a “huge moment” and he was “lost in admiration” for the scientists who had developed this potential cure for the virus that has rampaged for most of 2020.
He said the world was “no longer resting on the mere hope that we can return to normal next year but the sure and certain knowledge” that it will.
However, Mr Johnson tempered the optimism by acknowledging it was “not game over” for COVID. People would have to be patient and not let down their guard, he said.
Deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van Tam said England was “mobilising for the biggest vaccine campaign in history” and it was the first time that such complicated logistics would be put into practice.
While praising the vaccine scientists, Professor Van Tam said it was also not proven whether the jab would prevent transmissions, saying “we hope so but we’re not sure”.
He added that the world would still need more authorised vaccines as some may fail.
The World Health Organisation said there would not be enough quantities of vaccines in the next three to six months to prevent surges of infections. It wants people to maintain physical distancing and other measures.
Britain has bought 40 million doses of the vaccine developed by US pharma giant Pfizer and German biotech BioNtech. It will initially receive 800,000 doses.
BioNTech will send the doses in temperature-controlled boxes to Britain by ferry or plane.
The company’s chief business and chief commercial officer Sean Marett said the drug could be transported for up to six hours at between two and eight degrees and last for five days in a normal fridge. That is in contrast to the British government’s statement that shots must be stored at -70, equivalent to an Antarctic winter.
Meanwhile, the Morrison government has welcomed Britain’s fast-tracked approval but said Australia’s timeline would not change.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said Pfizer was continuing to work with Australian regulators towards the vaccine’s approval for use in Australia, which was not expected until late January.
“I have again spoken to the Australian CEO of Pfizer. They remain on track for vaccine delivery once it is approved for use in Australia by the independent regulator,” he said on Wednesday night.
Pfizer is providing data on its vaccine’s safety and effectiveness to the Therapeutic Goods Administration as part of the approval process.
“Our advice remains that the timeline for a decision on approval is expected by the end of January 2021, and our planning is for first vaccine delivery in March 2021,” Mr Hunt said.
The vaccine by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech is one of the four COVID-19 vaccines purchased by the federal government.
Russia announces mass vaccinations
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered authorities to begin mass voluntary vaccinations against COVID-19 next week as Russia recorded 589 new daily deaths from the coronavirus.
Russia will have produced 2 million vaccine doses within the next few days, Mr Putin said.
Russia said in November that its Sputnik V jab was 92 per cent effective at protecting people from COVID-19 according to interim results.
“Let’s agree on this – you will not report to me next week but you will start mass vaccination … let’s get to work already,” Mr Putin told Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova.
Ms Golikova said voluntary large-scale vaccinations could begin in December.
The rise in infections in Russia has slowed since peaking on November 27, with 25,345 new cases on Wednesday.
Russia has resisted imposing lockdowns during its second wave, preferring targeted regional curbs.
With more than 2.3 million infections, Russia has the fourth-largest number of COVID-19 cases in the world behind the US, India and Brazil.