Most care home residents will need to wait for new Covid-19 jab, says NHS chief

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has been shown to be 95% effective and works in all age groups.

Coronavirus – Wed Dec 2, 2020
Coronavirus – Wed Dec 2, 2020

Most care home residents will need to wait for their Covid-19 vaccine because of difficulties in transporting the newly-approved jab, the head of the NHS has said.

On Thursday, the UK became the first country in the world to give the go-ahead to the vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech, paving the way for vaccinations to start next week.

But the recommendation from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises ministers, that care home residents and staff should be the top priority cannot yet be fully carried out.

Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said the jab has to be stored at such low temperatures that it can only be moved a few times. Each pack of doses cannot be easily split and the 975 doses they contain would be too many for individual care homes, meaning the vaccine would be wasted.

Sir Simon told a Downing Street briefing that the first people to receive the jab from 50 hospital hubs next week would be the over-80s, care home staff and others identified by the JCVI who may already have a hospital appointment.

GP practices will then operate local vaccination centres as more vaccine becomes available and, if regulators give approval for a safe way of splitting packs, care homes will receive stocks, he added.

He said it would take until March or April for the entire at-risk population to be vaccinated.

But later in the briefing, he insisted the NHS was “raring to go” to vaccinate people in care homes, hopefully this month.

HEALTH Coronavirus
(PA Graphics)

“Just as soon as we have the regulatory sign-off that we can do that, that we can get the jabs to the care homes so that the GPs and the nurses can arrive and give the care home residents that Covid vaccination, we will do that,” he said.

“We – at this point, with a fair wind – fully expect that that will be in the first tranche of priorities for vaccination during this month.”

Setting out the difficulties faced in getting the vaccine into care homes, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the briefing: “Of course we want to get it into care homes to protect the most vulnerable as fast as we possibly can.”

But, he said, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has not yet authorised the people transporting the vaccine to the care homes to split the packs.

He told the press conference the “searchlights of science” had picked out the “invisible enemy” as he welcomed the approval of the vaccine, saying he was “lost in admiration for science”.

He said scientists had performed “biological jiu jitsu” to turn the virus on itself, adding the NHS would now embark on the the “biggest programme of mass vaccination in the history of the UK” from next week.

“It will inevitably take some months before all the most vulnerable are protected – long, cold months,” he added, saying the tier restrictions would continue to be a “very important” part of battling coronavirus.

“So it’s all the more vital that as we celebrate this scientific achievement we are not carried away with over-optimism or fall into the naive belief that the struggle is over,” he added.

Coronavirus – Wed Dec 2, 2020
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Sir Simon Stevens during a media briefing in Downing Street (John Sibley/PA)

Despite warning against over-optimism, Mr Johnson said it was now “sure and certain” that life could start returning to normal in 2021.

A combination of community testing, vaccines and social distancing measures were still necessary, he said.

“As we do all this we are no longer resting on the mere hope that we can return to normal next year, in the spring, but rather the sure and certain knowledge that we will succeed and together reclaim our lives and all the things about our lives that we love,” he said.

Deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said he was “emotional” listening to the way Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) officials had so meticulously come to their conclusions about the Pfizer vaccine.

He told the briefing the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was a “complex product with a very fragile cold chain”.

Prof Van-Tam added: “It’s not a yoghurt that can be taken out of the fridge and put back in multiple times.

“It’s really tricky to handle.”

How the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine works
(PA Graphics)

Both Pfizer and BioNTech have said the jab can be sent to care homes, as long as the vaccine travels for no more than six hours after it leaves cold storage and is then put in a normal fridge at 2C to 8C.

Ben Osborn, Pfizer’s UK country manager, told reporters: “The point I really want to emphasise is, at the point of administration and deployment by the NHS, our vaccine can be stored under normal refrigerated temperatures at 2-8C for five days.

“And that gives us the flexibility to reach the target populations identified this morning by the JCVI over the months ahead.”

Sean Marett, who is chief commercial officer at BioNTech and responsible for distribution, said: “We have stability studies now really supporting the evidence for being able to transport up to six hours at 2C-8C, so you can really take vials from the vaccination centre – one of the large ones – put them in a bag at 2C-8C and take them to the care homes where they can be administered directly to the patients.”

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

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said 800,000 doses of the jab will arrive next week, with millions more arriving in the coming weeks.

BioNTech’s Mr Marett said the UK was likely to receive at least five million doses of vaccine by the end of the year.

The UK had initially expected 10 million by the end of December, but Mr Marett said the amount being shipped out was being scaled back for all orders.

Earlier, Dr June Raine, head of the MHRA, said “no corners have been cut” in assessing the jab’s safety.

“The safety of the public will always come first,” she said.

“This recommendation has only been given by the MHRA following the most rigorous scientific assessment of every piece of data so that it meets the required strict standards of safety, of effectiveness and of quality.”

Information obtained by the PA news agency on the jab’s rollout 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.

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

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