A 90-year-old woman in central England became the first person ever to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine outside clinical trials Tuesday, kicking off a nationwide rollout of inoculations that’s being watched around the world.
Margaret Keenan received the first of two planned jabs of the vaccine at Coventry Hospital outside Birmingham, with television cameras capturing the moment live.
“I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against COVID-19,” she said after receiving the shot from nurse May Parsons just after 6:30 a.m. local time.
“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.”
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Stephen Powis, medical director for England’s National Health Service (NHS), both told national media they found it emotional watching footage of Keenan receiving her initial dose.
“It seems so simple, having a jab in your arm,” Hancock told Sky News shortly afterwards.
Powis said the start of inoculations felt like “the beginning of the end.”
“It’s been really dreadful year, 2020 — all those things that we are so used to, meeting friends and family, going to the cinema, have been disrupted. We can get those back. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not next month. But in the months to come.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who narrowly beat his own serious bout with the virus in the spring — thanked health workers as the vaccine rollout got underway.
“We will beat this together,” Johnson said on Twitter, while urging the public to continue to follow guidance aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19.
The U.K. began vaccinating members of its general population through the NHS less than a week after becoming the first country to approve the shot developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.
Other nations that are set to approve the vaccine in the coming days, including Canada and the United States, are closely watching the rollout in anticipation of their own mass inoculations, which are set to ramp up this month and into January.
Around 800,000 doses were put in place for the start of the immunization program in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Tuesday, a day that has been dubbed “V-Day” — a nod to triumphs in the Second World War.
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The vaccine can’t arrive soon enough for the U.K., which has more than 61,000 COVID-19 related deaths — more than any other country has reported in Europe. The U.K. has more than 1.7 million cases to date.
“I think there’s every chance that we will look back on … (Tuesday) as marking a decisive turning point in the battle against coronavirus,” NHS CEO Simon Stevens said Monday.
The 800,000 doses are only a fraction of what is needed. The government is targeting more than 25 million people, or about 40% of the population, in the first phase of its vaccination program, which gives first priority to those who are highest risk from the disease.
After those over 80 and nursing home workers, the program will be expanded as the supply increases, with the vaccine offered roughly on the basis of age groups, starting with the oldest people.
In England, the vaccine was delivered to 50 hospital hubs for the first wave of the program, with more hospitals expected to offer it as the rollout ramps up. Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are making their own plans under the U.K.’s system of devolved administration.
While the U.K. has a well-developed infrastructure for delivering vaccines, it is geared to administer them to groups such as school children or pregnant women, not the whole population. Both of those groups are being told not to apply for the vaccine, as there’s not enough data to ensure their safety.
The rollout also provides a test case for Pfizer and BioNTech’s distribution networks. The shot must be stored at -70C (-94F) and only lasts five days in a regular fridge.
Canada to receive 249,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses this month
Pfizer and BioNTech said their shot proved 95% effective in preventing illness in final-stage trials. In all, Britain has ordered 357 million doses of seven different COVID-19 vaccines.
Canada said Monday that it expects an initial batch of 249,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine to be delivered starting next week. Health Canada is expected to approve the vaccine soon after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration meets to discuss its own approval on Thursday.
Russia and China have both started giving vaccine candidates to their populations before final safety and efficacy trials have been completed.
—With files from the Associated Press and Reuters
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