Covid vaccine to arrive in UK in 'hours, not days'

Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Libby Wiener

The first doses of the approved Pfizer and BioNTech coronavirus vaccine will hit British shores in "hours, not days".

Deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said the jab - approved by the UK medicines regulator on Wednesday - will arrive in the country on Thursday.

A spokesperson for Eurotunnel confirmed to ITV News that the vaccine was travelling to the UK on Thursday in unmarked hauliers and lorries to ensure they can not be targeted.

The Pfizer vaccine is more difficult to administer than the Oxford jab Credit: PA Images

The UK became the first country in the world to give the go-ahead to the vaccine, paving the way for vaccinations to start next week.

The country has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer jab, enough to vaccinate 20 million people with two doses, given 21 days apart.

But with issues surrounding storage temperature and how many times it can be transported, the Pfizer rollout looks to be less than straightforward.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned of “immense logistical challenges” in getting the vaccine to those who need it most as experts have warned people in care homes might face a delay in receiving immunisation from the disease.

One huge rollout issue is the temperature the vaccine needs to be stored.

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Prof Van-Tam told the BBC: “Now, there is a technical issue related to the Pfizer vaccine that we currently expect to receive very, very shortly in the UK, and I do mean hours, not days.”

He said it must be held at minus 70C, and, once it comes out to defrost, it has to be stored at 2C to 8C.

ITV News understands that two of the 15 logistics companies that make up the NHS supply chain (in addition to Movianto which will store the Pfizer vaccine at government warehouses) are finalising contracts for the distribution to hospitals of the Pfizer Covid vaccine

The first doses of the newly approved Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine is unlikely to be rolled out to care home residents next week.

Speaking on ITV's This Morning, Prof Van-Tan admitted the vaccine was "quite difficult to administer" which could impede its distribution in care homes.

He added: "The NHS, the MRHA are working really hard right now to try and find a solution so that we can get this into care homes if we possibly can. 

“But there is no absolute assurance of that, because one thing we can’t do is end up with a vaccine which has been handed incorrectly and we end up with a vaccine that is not properly viable at the end of the distribution chain." 

Downing Street has said the NHS is working closely with the regulator to find a way to administer the Pfizer vaccine in care homes.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman confirmed the first doses would be administered through 50 hospital hubs and would be given the NHS and care home staff and the over-80s.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises ministers, has recommended care home residents and staff should be the top priority. But the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) have not approved splitting the vaccine boxes containing 975 doses, meaning it would be wasted if sent to individual residential homes.

Wales’s chief medical officer Dr Frank Atherton confirmed the prioritisation list would have to be tempered as the devolved government would need to use mass vaccination centres which involved “people moving towards the vaccine”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said 800,000 doses of the jab will arrive next week and people could be given the shot straightaway.

An employee, wearing a protective face mask, checks boxes at Pfizer Manufacturing plant in Puurs, Belgium. Credit: AP

BioNTech chief commercial officer Sean Marett confirmed the UK is likely to receive at least five million doses by the end of the year – half of its initial 2020 order due to a production scaleback.

It is not just logistical difficulties the government faces in its rollout; there are trust hurdles among some of the public.

Appearing on This Morning, Prof Van-Tam was asked by presenter Phillip Schofield about what he would say to conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and people who believe “it’s got something to do with Bill Gates”.

Prof Van-Tam replied: "It’s extraordinary nonsense and I don’t give it any credence, and I don’t give it any airtime.”

Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the JCVI, called for a “very small degree of patience”, with other vaccines – which could have fewer issues with transport and storage – “in the pipeline”.

The MHRA recommended the vaccine after clinical trials involving tens of thousands of volunteers showed it was 95% effective and turned up no serious side effects.

Information obtained by the PA news agency says that once the vaccine arrives in the UK from Pfizer’s plant in Belgium, batches will be checked at a central depot to ensure their quality.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has been approved by the UK's medicine regulator. Credit: PA

Public Health England will process orders placed by the NHS for next-day delivery to hospital hubs around the UK.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson caused controversy on Thursday by declaring the UK a “much better country” than France, Belgium and the US because it okayed the vaccine first.

Mr Williamson said the UK’s status as the first country to approve a vaccine is due to its superior experts.

The European regulator has criticised the approval of the vaccine using emergency powers, insisting that its own, slower approach is more appropriate.

European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said the MHRA’s experts are “very good” but “we are definitely not in the game of comparing regulators across countries, nor on commenting on claims as to who is better”.

“This is not a football competition, we are talking about the life and health of people,” he said.

BioNTech, which owns the vaccine, said it has so far signed deals to supply 570 million doses worldwide in 2021, with options to deliver 600 million more. It hopes to supply at least 1.3 billion in 2021.

It is hoped that the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, if approved by the regulator, will allow for easier administration on a mass scale as it can be stored at normal fridge-like temperatures.

Sanjiv Joshi, managing director of the Caron Group tells ITV News why he is cautious optimistic about the rollout

What you need to know about each vaccine:

All three vaccines require two separate inoculations to be effective.

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